It would easy to tag Sunday afternoon’s American Hockey League game at Mile One Centre as a portent of better things for the St. John’s IceCaps, that it holds the promise of being cited, at some time in the future, as some sort of turning point for the club.
After all, the IceCaps (16-20-2) beat the Western Conference-leading Toronto Marlies 4-2 with spirited effort and sharper hockey thinking, and in doing so, ended a seven-game home-ice losing streak. What’s more, it was a victory delivered courtesy of lineup still challenged by injury and now radically revised by the necessities of a parent team only starting its NHL season in January.
And it happened to come in St. John’s 38th game, officially ending the first half of its 2012-13 campaign, and springboarding the club into the back end of the schedule, which begins with a grueling six-game road trip starting Friday against the Norfolk Admirals.
And it gave fans, many of whom who had resorted to boos or Bronx cheers during a 6-2 loss to the Marlies on Saturday, reason to root in earnest.
Yes, Sunday’s game could eventually turn out to be some sort of a mid-season hinge.
For now, however, let’s just call it a good, solid result.
“Our fans are our biggest supporters, so to get a win for them is nice. At the same time, we’re a long way from where we need to be,” said Kevin Clark, who scored twice for the IceCaps on Sunday. “This is just a step in the right direction. Now, we’re heading out onto the road for a little while and we have to think about the positives we did tonight and take that into Norfolk.”
Clark’s goals came in the third period. He got the game-winner midway through the frame to break a 2-2 tie and added an insurance empty-netter in the final minute. Jason Jaffray and Eric O’Dell also scored for St. John’s (16-20-2), which won for the first time at Mile One since Nov. 25. Paul Ranger, on a five-on-three power-play in the first period, and Ryan Hamilton, on a second-period penalty shot, replied for the Marlies (22-11-3).
Eddie Pasquale made 21 saves for the IceCaps, while St. John’s directed 35 shots towards the Toronto goal and Jussi Rynnas.
Jaffray, Sunday’s first star, also had an assist. That gives him the St. John’s captain the team scoring lead with 20 points, one more that Spencer Machacek and Paul Postma, two of six St. John’s players recalled by the Winnipeg Jets this week to participate in the big club’s post-lockout training camp.
Clark, a healthy scratch for two home games against Manchester earlier this month, found himself in the vaunted position of being a player on the ice in the waning moments of a one-goal game ... and one who delivered.
But those looking for other signals of better things probably found them flashed by younger players like O’Dell, who followed up a two-goal performance Saturday with a power-play marker Sunday, and defenceman Ben Chiarot, suddenly promoted from a five-six role to the minutes belonging to a top-two rearguard, and winger Jason Gregoire, whose pre-pro reputation was that of a scorer, but was a minor revelation Sunday as a penalty killer.
“He hadn’t PK’d all year. You can’t let it go unnoticed about (the performance) of a player like Jason Gregoire,” said Jaffray who also spoke about the sophomore winger’s contributions to Clark’s empty-netter, set up when Gregoire blocked a shot, then chipped the puck ahead to his linemate, who burst down the wing to backhand a shot into the goal.
“It’s great to see a guy like that make a play like that.”
The Marlies, who scored three power-play goals Saturday, went one-for-six in man-advantage situations in the rematch, their lone success coming when Ranger scored the game’s first marker a five-on-three just 2:35 in.
“Maybe we had to kill a few too many penalties, but I thought we had a solid 60-minute effort,” said Jaffray.
“I don’t thing we had many lulls in our game. It didn’t see we were on our heels for 10 or 12 minutes ... when we hit those lulls on other nights.”
Jaffray and Clark both agreed the test now will be to provide a solid follow-up to Sunday. Both know, that while the NHL shakes itself out, much of it depends on continued solid performances by younger players.
So does St. John’s head coach Keith McCambridge, who added that there’s a secondary issue at play.
“You want to make sure you’re winning games and getting points, but you also want to find out a little bit what you have as an organization,” said McCambridge. “Can they be guys who can contribute offensively? Are they third- or fourth-line guys or are they top-six players?
“This here can be a chance for a lot of players who (usually have) hit the eight-minute mark as forwards to get to the 15- to 17-minute mark (in ice time) and you’ve got first-year defenceman who are playing 22, 23 minutes. That’s a lot of key ice time.”
In fact, of the six defencemen dressed for St. John’s Sunday, only one — Travis Ramsey — had played a full season in the AHL in 2011-12, and Ramsey was only appearing in his second game after being out seven weeks with a hand injury. The others were Chiarot, Cody Sol, Will O’Neill and Julian Melchiori, who are officially AHL rookies, and Richard Petiot, making his IceCaps debut.
Petiot is a veteran of over 300 AHL contests, but one who hadn’t played a game since October of 2011, when he suffered a serious knee injury while playing for Norfolk.
“I thought about that in the third period with about four minutes left, and (looked out to see) there were two first-year defencemen on the ice,” said McCambridge.
“You talk about this league (being) about development. Well, that’s Grade A development right there.”
Note: Sunday’s game was a make-up for Friday, when the two teams were supposed to play at Mile One, but saw the game cancelled because of inclement weather ... The Marlies, who already had lost seven players to the Toronto Maple Leafs this week, did without leading scorer Keith Aucoin Sunday, even though he was healthy and in the building at Mile One. That’s because Aucoin has been added to the Leafs’ training-camp roster and was held out as a precaution ... The Winnipeg Jets have placed St. John’s centre Ben Maxwell on waivers, but this is simply the move they would have made in October had there not been an NHL lockout. Maxwell’s pro experience means he is subject to waivers if sent to the minors, a transaction only officially taking place now that the lockout is over. St. John’s goalie Mark Dekanich, who is out with a hamstring injury, will need to go through the same process when he comes off the injury list ... After scoring the game’s first goal, Toronto blueliner Paul Ranger did not see any more shifts Sunday. Marlies’ head coach Dallas Eakins says Ranger suffered an undisclosed injury. A minute before his goal, Ranger had taken a high hit from Ryan Schnell, one which led to a roughing minor ... Schnell’s penalty would be the first of the two that led to the five-on-three advantage for the Marlies. The other was a delay of game call against St. John’s rearguard Cody Sol for sending the puck over the end glass from 150 feet down the ice. “You don’t see that every day,” said St. John’s head coach Keith McCambridge ... The successful penalty shot by Marlies’ captain Ryan Hamilton came during a Toronto power play when the IceCaps’ Richard Petiot was called for placing his hand over the puck in the crease, then sweeping it out of harm’s way ... Sunday’s Coors Light three stars: 1 Jason Jaffray, IceCaps; 2. Ryan Hamilton, Marlies 3. Kevin Clark, St. John’s ... Brian Rogers’ choice as the hardest-working IceCap was recent ECHL call-up Josh Lunden ...