IceCaps' forward has been to Calder Cup final on two occasions
The St. John's IceCaps' Ray Sawada sends the puck up ice during Game 3 of the team's AHL Calder Cup playoffs first-round series against the Syracuse Crunch Wednesday night at Mile One Centre. Sawada has played in two of the last three league finals, which is part of the reason why the IceCaps picked him up in a deadline day deal with the Texas Stars. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
You're travelling to Grand Falls-Windsor from St. John's and you've made it to Whitbourne. In relative terms, that's about as far as the St. John's IceCaps have travelled in their Calder Cup trek this spring.
Friday night at Mile One Centre, the IceCaps and Syracuse Crunch hooked up in Game 4 of their first-round American Hockey League playoff series, and if anyone in the St. John's dressing room wanted to get a good gauge of how far they would still have to go - assuming the IceCaps advance past this series - there would be nobody better to ask than IceCaps' right-winger Ray Sawada.
Sawada has gone the full Calder Cup distance twice. In 2009, he was part of a Manitoba Moose team that played 22 post-season games, but lost to the Hershey Bears in the final. The next year, he was with the Texas Stars, and appeared in 24 playoff contests, only to once again have his team lose to Hershey in a six-game Calder Cup final.
"Just focus on each shift, each game. Stay in the moment and make the moments add up," said Sawada, when asked a player's best approach this time of year.
His part in those runs in Texas and Manitoba had much to do with why the IceCaps acquired the six-foot-two, 210-pound player from the Stars in an AHL deadline deal that saw Shawn Weller and Mike Forney head to the Lone Star State.
"Ray Sawada is a big-body man," said St. John's head coach Keith McCambridge. "He's physical, he skates well, can get it on the forecheck and, of course, he has that playoff experience."
McCambridge wasn't a Moose assistant coach when Sawada played for that former AHL club, but Craig Heisinger, the IceCaps' general manager, held the same job in Manitoba at the time. And Sawada found familiar faces in the St. John's dressing room when he showed up here: defenceman Travis Ramsey and injured St. John's captain Jason Jaffray had been Moose teammates, Rick St. Croix, who is part of the IceCaps' coaching staff, was an assistant with Manitoba and St. John's centre Aaron Gagnon was the leading scorer for Texas in those 2010 playoffs.
Sawada has never been a big scorer. In fact, since putting up 20 goals in the British Columbia junior league in 2003-04, the Richmond, B.C., native only hit double digits in tallies three times - a couple of 10-goal seasons with Cornell University (where he was a co-captain and a teammate of St. John's native Colin Greening, now of the Ottawa Senators) and an 11-goal, 29-point campaign with the AHL Stars last season.
But he is seen as a player who noticeably raises the level of his game in the post-season.
Sawada himself suggests there may be a practical reason - "Every year I have been coming off injuries ... I'm not going to say at the right time, but later on in the year, and I guess I've had a little more energy as a result and have been able to put that into the playoffs," - but he also agrees his style of play is playoff-friendly.
"Maintaining that physical game and helping shut down the other team's top line, things that seem to be even more important this time of year, and being able to contribute a little bit offensively, too," said Sawada, who picked up an assist in St. John's 5-1 win over the Crunch Wednesday at Mile One, setting up lineman John Albert for a third-period goal.
Veteran centre Garth Murray is Sawada's other regular linemate, although, as they did with the Stars, Sawada and Gagnon share some ice time on the power-play.
"I guess they need a big dummy to stand in front of the net," said Sawada with a laugh.
But on a regular basis, their roles are different. Gagnon skates with Ben Maxwell and Jason King on a unit that's being counted on to provide offence. Sawada, Murray and Albert constitute what McCambridge calls, "the energy line," but in a strict numerical sense, is the IceCaps' fourth line.
Sawada doesn't mind the designation.
"Some other teams, it might not be such a great thing to say you're playing on the fourth line, but when you look at our team and how much depth there is and all the offensive players we have, I don't feel bad to say it at all," he said.
"We're proud of what we do."