There’s still 32 games remaining in the IceCaps’ regular season, but St. John’s playoff hopes may hinge on the outcome of a six-game homestand starting tonight with the Binghamton Senators dropping into Mile One Centre for a pair of games.
The IceCaps sit in 13th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference at 19-22-1-2, but they’re only four points out of a playoff spot (the top eight teams in each division earn a berth in the post season).
That’s the good news.
The bad news is four teams stand between the IceCaps and the eighth-place Worcester Sharks. That’s a lot of leap-frogging.
Given St. John’s is last in the five-team Atlantic Division, 11 points behind division leaders Portland Pirates, securing a top eight spot in the conference is the IceCaps’ best route to the playoffs (the first-place teams in each of the three divisions secure the top three conference positions).
“These are huge games,” said St. John’s defenceman and assistant captain Dean Arsene following practice Thursday morning. “They’re going to determine whether we’re in the mix, within striking distance, or really on the outside looking in.”
Following the weekend series with the Eastern Conference-leading Senators (27-10-1-3), the IceCaps take on the Sharks (19-19-2-2) next Tuesday and Wednesday and the 20-20-3-1 Connecticut Whale next Saturday and Sunday.
“We can’t wait until March,” said Arsene. “You have to start making these games count, especially at home. Our road record’s been pretty good this year, but our home record hasn’t been the greatest.
“We really need to get it back on track.”
St. John’s is playing .500 hockey away from St. John’s with 12 wins, 11 losses and a shootout lost. But the friendly confines of Mile One haven’t been so friendly for the IceCaps, who sport a league-low .400 winning percentage at home (7-11-1-1).
“It’s one of those things where everyone knows how important it is (to string together a few victories), but you don’t want to make it too big a deal, either,” Arsene said, “or guys start gripping their sticks too hard. It’s a fine line trying to find that balance of knowing we need those games.
“All that said, these inter-division games, we have to win them. Those four-point games everyone talks about? We need to win them. We’ve been on the wrong side of too many of them this year. We have to start making them count for us.”
The IceCaps will play the weekend series without John Albert, who reaggravated a back injury that kept him on the sidelines for 18 games in December and part of January. Jason King (concussion), who hasn’t played since Nov. 4, and Aaron Gagnon (knee), sidelined since Dec. 31, both skated Thursday, but were also wearing red non-contact jerseys and won’t play this weekend.
However, Hunter Tremblay, who has been out since Nov. 25 with a concussion (26 games), will be in the lineup tonight.
The IceCaps have played 10 two-game homestands so far this season, splitting seven of them. St. John’s was swept in the other three. Of the seven series in which the IceCaps have registered at least one win, that victory occurred in the first game five times.
While they won’t openly admit as much, teams are satisfied with a split of two games on the road.
At home, well, that’s another story.
“If you split games the whole season, that only adds up to a .500 record, and that’s not good enough,” said Arsene. “We won the first game of a home-ice series five straight times earlier this season, and then we took our foot off the gas.
“We’d beat a team 4-2, and we’re thinking we’re going to take two, no problem. The other team comes out harder in the next game, we don’t respond and they end up with the split.
“So we need to start taking two games here. Maybe the sense of urgency isn’t there that we have on the road. But it should be.”