By Brendan McCarthy
The St. John’s IceCaps handed out 6,300 towels Monday night.
Despite a gut-wrenching, brain-numbing, soul-stealing 1-0 overtime loss to the Norfolk Admirals, the St. John’s players vow they won’t be tossing any of them in.
Brave words, mostly said with conviction, were offered up by the IceCaps in post-game interviews at Mile One Centre after Monday’s game, which was ended by a well-placed Pierre-Cedric Labrie wrist shot 1:37 into extra time.
The result puts the powerhouse Admirals up 3-0 in the best-of-seven American Hockey League Eastern Conference final.
Now it remains to be seen if, and how, those words can be backed up in an on-the-brink Game 4 tonight at Mile One.
If St. John’s is to prevent a Norfolk sweep, it won't happen because of some chalkboard plan put in place by the coaches — the IceCaps have floated into dire straits where no X’s and O’s will be able to steer them out. This requires “in the head and in the heart” stuff, individually and collectively.
Finding spare tanks of determination, mustering up the needed inner resolve, that's the task. It won't be an easy one, considering the IceCaps spilled determination all over the ice, displayed resolve throughout the game Monday and it still wasn’t enough.
“Overall, our game was the best game we played in this series," said St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge. “I thought, to a man, the guys gave everything they had out there."
Which of course begs the question, if the IceCaps gave “everything” Monday, how will they extend the series to a Game 5 Saturday at Mile One and perhaps beyond against an Admirals team that has lost just two of its last 40 games?
“I’ll tell you this: the one thing I know about my team is that my team has a lot of character and they’ll dig in and give everything they have,” said McCambridge, “and I expect the same thing tomorrow and they expect the same effort themselves.
“If anyone can dig themselves out of this hole, it’s that character, that personnel in that room.”
A few goals would assist the cause — the IceCaps have managed just two through the first three games of the series.
On Monday, when one would have done the trick, they came close to scoring a few times in regulation, but either shot wide or were either denied by Admirals netminder Dustin Tokarski, who made 25 saves.
St. John’s had one solid chance in the short OT — when Brett Festerling’s point shot was tipped by Arturs Kulda and looked like a possible game-winner until Tokarski shot out his right leg to turn the puck aside.
And as if to convince the full house of its fickle nature, the same fate which had almost made Kulda a hero skewered him on the same shift. His shot from just inside the Norfolk blueline bounced off Labrie’s shinpad and the big Admirals winger skated 120 feet before launching the shot that beat Pasquale.
“I was just trying to put my body in the front of the puck. I thought he (a chasing Kulda) might try to hook me,” said Labrie. “As soon as I got close to the net, I didn’t hesitate. I said I’m going to shoot this. I’ve missed so many times on breakaways this, I decided I’m shooting.”
Kulda didn’t want to be interviewed after the game, but his teammates and McCambridge were offering verbal hugs, not finger-pointing.
“Kulds has been a warrior for us all season and we’re not putting this on him,” said Festerling.
“Kulds had a real strong game. The puck comes to the point. It’s a bouncing puck. He tries to control it. We’ve seen Norfolk the whole series, they’re a real good shot-blocking team.
“They take away time and space. He tried everything he could to get it past that first forechecker. I don’t fault Kulds at all there,” added McCambridge.
In AHL history, only two teams have rebounded from a 0-3 deficits in playoff series. In 1960, the Rochester Americans rallied against the Cleveland Barons, while the 1989 Adirondack Red Wings did the same against the Hershey Bears.
“In the last three years, I’ve been on teams that have come back from 3-1 down and 3-1 is just one game different than 3-0.
Both those times it didn’t look good either, but we came back. So I know it’s possible,” said St. John’s veteran centre Garth Murray, who then quoted what has become the mantra of desperate hockey teams in desperate times: "One shift, one period, one game at a time.”
For McCambridge, it’s simultaneously a prayer and a plan.
“It’s belief and it’s not looking to get yourself four games. It’s looking to get yourself a strong first period. You’ve got to look at getting a strong first period. You have to look at the start of next game and look at just getting one. Get one and then look at getting two,” he said.
Game time tonight is 7:30 p.m. (Rogers Television, CJYQ 930 AM) and the IceCaps can count on a 45th straight sellout crowd armed those rally towels distributed Monday. Festerling also wants them to bring genuine hope.
“We’re hungry,” said the veteran blueliner. “That (loss) just made us hungrier to get back at these guys and get a win.”
Edie Pasquale, who made 26 saves, several of the spectacular type, was the Coors Light first star. Labrie got the nod as second star, while Tokarski was third star ... Teenaged centre Mark Scheifele was the Mary Brown’s hardest-working St. John’s player ... The IceCaps went 0-for-6 in power plays, while the Admirals were 0-for-7 ... Notable IceCaps scratches Monday included wingers Spencer Machacek and Carl Klingberg. Machacek, the IceCaps’ regular-season scoring leader, hasn’t played since being injured in the seventh game of the conference semifinal against Wilkes-Barre. The way McCambridge was talking Monday, Machacek would seem doubtful for tonight ... Norfolk defenceman Scott Jackson left the game and did not return after taking a puck to the head when blocking Paul Postma’s shot in the opening minute of the second period. Jackson was helped off the ice while holding a towel to his bloody face ... Among those in attendance Monday: Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Admirals’ NHL parent club, and AHL president Dave Andrews ...