The American Hockey League has changed a lot in the time since the the Maple Leafs left St. John’s and the IceCaps arrived.
The awkwardness that comes at the end of a non-championship season hasn’t. It’s as if a close-knit group of seasonal workers have been handed pink slips en masse, with almost no notice.
The IceCaps were left to deal with that peculiar situation Tuesday night at Mile One Centre after a 4-0 loss to the Norfolk Admirals ended their inaugural AHL season. The Admirals, winners of 39 of their last 41 games, roll into the Calder Cup final after having swept St. John’s in four straight. The IceCaps, meanwhile will start to clean out lockers, hold exit meetings with coaches and managers, make plans to return to off-season homes and say farewell to friends and goodbye to what’s always been described as an extraordinary collection of players and people.
“There’s a lot of emotions going on right now,” said St. John’s defenceman Paul Postma.
“Once you say goodbye at the end of the year, you know you're not going to play with the same guys again. You might play with a handful of them, but not all of them. So it's going to be tough to say goodbye and wish them all the best.
“This was one of those years where everybody gelled together. There was a lot of chemistry and you really didn’t have any cliquish groups.
“This was a special group. I think we deserved a little more in the playoffs here, but that’s the way it goes, I guess.”
In their sweep, the Admirals outscored the IceCaps 14-2 and finished up the series with nearly eight periods worth of shutout hockey. In a nutshell, they were exactly the dominant team that finished off the regular season with 28 consecutive victories.
To review Game 4 in detail is mostly unnecessary. It’s the final result and aftermath that matters most to both sides. And for the IceCaps and the fans, particular note is be made of the final three minutes. More on that in a bit.
Statistically, it should be noted that Evan Oberg, Tyler Johnson, Trevor Smith and Brandon Segal had the goals for the winners, while Dustin Tokarski made 29 saves as he posted his second straight shutout and extended his personal — and his team’s — streak of not having allowed a goal to 158 minutes and nine seconds.
For the IceCaps, netminder Eddie Pasquale was once again his side’s best player, making 38 saves, but his teammates could not manufacture any offence despite seven power plays, leaving St. John’s one-for-25 with the man-advantage in the series.
On Tuesday, the IceCaps had two four-minute chances on high-sticking calls. The first came four minutes in, when Cory Conacher was sent off after blood was drawn from the head of St. John's centre Patrice Cormier.
Truth is, Cormier had been damaged by the stick of his teammate, Postma. But despite what was a godsend of a chance to start the game on a positive note, the IceCaps did absolutely nothing with the opportunity. And when Oberg and Johnson finally breached the wall that was Pasquale with tallies two-and-half-minutes apart late in the opening frame, it became apparent that the turning point in Tuesday’s game had actually come 1:37 into overtime of Monday’s contest. That's when Pierre-Cedric Labrie scored on a breakaway to give Norfolk a 1-0 victory in a game that could have easily gone St. John’s way and changed momentum in the series.
Instead, Labrie’s goal appeared to have just shifted the Norfolk steamroller into a higher gear for the next night.
In short, outside of saves that led to the now familiar “Eddie! Eddie!” homage to Pasquale, there wasn’t much for IceCaps’ fans to cheer about Tuesday night. But as the game moved towards its inevitable result, cheer they did.
By that point, few of the 46th straight sell-out crowd had left. Now, the cynic might point out the winning number for the $22,000 winning 50-50 ticket hadn’t been revealed, but it was hard to resist the notion that something more than payout hopes were at play.
With three minutes left in the third, they stood, unprompted by anything except their own passion and, perhaps, compassion. And they roared and they clapped and they kept it up even after the IceCaps’ Zach Redmond was sent off for slashing. Such was the feeling in the building that even the Admirals seemed to sense the moment. It wouldn't be fair to say the visitors laid back in those final seconds, but they didn't push either, apparently realizing this was a moment to be appreciated, even if the cheering was not for them.
“To look around the crowd, to look around Mile One and see not an empty seat in the building (in those waning minutes) and everyone standing and giving the team a standing ovation, just puts a stamp on everything we’ve experienced here this season,” said IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge.
“It’s been unbelievable. We really wish we could have been able to give our fans a different result at the end.”
During the IceCaps’ first season and his first as an AHL coach, McCambrige has been consistently been a proponent of the even-keel approach. He had certainly adopted it himself and it was never very easy to get a read on what might be brewing underneath his calm exterior. But on Tuesday, as he took up his regular post-game position before a media scrum, even he couldn't hide the cracks. Emotion could be glimpsed in slightly moist eyes and he spoke in a voice that just barely controlled a quiver.
“I’m proud of all the guys in that room. I'm proud of everything they pushed through in that season. Laying everything on the line during callups and all the injuries in the regular season,” he said.
“But this is not how we drew up in the end.”
When asked how he would deal with the fact AHL teams are very much one-off entities, with certain and considerable change from season to season, his wounded soul became more apparent.
“We always felt that this was a special group. We had that blend of skill and physicality and character on the top of this list. We have management that’s going to put together a really good team for next season, but we felt this was an opportunity that was missed, to win a Calder Cup.
“You pour your heart and soul into every minute of the day ... you pour everything you have into the season and to fall short here at home really stings.
“I know the makeup of myself and when I wake up in the morning. it’s going to be hard to swallow.”