It will be 11 weeks before the start of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs, by which time we will officially be a month into spring and winter will, hopefully, have loosened whatever grip it’s had on us.
But the St. John’s IceCaps — to put a twist on an old advertising catch phrase — can’t wait ’til spring and instead must do it now.
Circumstances mean St. John’s playoff run, or run at the playoffs, is already in effect.
The IceCaps made a good start of it on the weekend, taking two wins in a Mile One matchup with the Binghamton Senators. The sweep of the Sens — a 4-2 victory Friday followed by a 1-0 shutout Saturday — marks the first time this season St. John’s has taken both ends of a two-game series from a visiting opponent.
“The biggest thing is the back-to-back (wins), but you all know we hadn’t been able to do that. If you’re going to be a team that pushes for the playoffs and has any chance of success, you’ve got to win at home,” said IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge, whose team sits 11th in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, two points behind the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Hershey Bears, tied for seventh place and current holders of the last two playoff berths.
In between those two teams and the IceCaps (21-22-3) are the Manchester Monarchs and Worcester Sharks, both a point ahead of St. John’s.
It’s the latter club which will supply the IceCaps with their next test. The Sharks are here for games Tuesday and Wednesday, with the potential for an eight-point swing either way in terms of their relative standing with St. John’s.
“They (the Sharks) have been beating some good teams lately, but we’re on a bit of a hot streak right now and we’re determined to keep it going,” said St. John’s sophomore centre Eric O’Dell, who scored three of his team’s five goals in the weekend series with the Senators (27-13-3), including the only tally Saturday.
“Every time you look, he’s busy in the offensive zone, making plays,” said McCambridge of O’Dell, who leads St. John’s with 12 goals, seven of them coming in the last 10 games.
“He hunts and retrieves pucks well. He’s getting better and better every single game.”
Goaltender Eddie Pasquale earned his fourth shutout of the season Saturday, making 24 saves. He also got the win Friday, with 21 stops. As a result, he improved his record to 14-15-2 and his save percentage to .918, while dropping his goals-against-average to 2.48
“It seems we’re kind of riding the Eric O’Dell-Eddie Pasquale show right now, but hey, we’ll take it,” said St. John’s captain Jason Jaffray.
Pasquale and his teammates got their weekend sweep versus the Senators’ big Robin Lehner, owner of the AHL’s best save percentage (.946), and a goalie who arrived in St. John’s having won eight of his last nine starts.
“Maybe a little bit,” answered Pasquale when asked if he was motivated by the presence of his opposite number (they both wear 40). “He’s a good goalie and you know we’re not going to get too many by him, so you want to do what you can to give your team a chance to win.
“But there are so many good goalies in the league, you have to be like that pretty well every night.
“Yeah, I was maybe motivated (by facing Lehner) in this series, but just a little bit.”
Pasquale may have been at his best Saturday when he was doing nothing. The Senators didn’t have a shot on goal through the first 12 and a half minutes of the contest, meaning the IceCaps’ goalie had to work on keep from going cold — figuratively and literally.
“It’s tough. You do what you can to stay warm, to stay in involved … playing the puck, whatever,” said Pasquale. “You saw when they did get that first shot, I let out a big rebound and they got a second opportunity. That’s what happens when you’re cold.”
O’Dell actually put the puck behind Lehner twice during the second period Saturday, but had his first goal waved off when referee Trent Knorr ruled Lehner had been affected by incidental contact with the IceCaps’ Jason Gregoire.
But as Knorr was explaining his ruling to McCambridge, Senators forward Darren Kramer came towards the IceCaps’ bench and tried to get something going with a push and a shove, only to wind up with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
O’Dell scored on the ensuing power play, just after another infraction by the visitors had resulted in a delayed penalty against Binghamton.
“The bench was telling me to pass the puck, so we’d have (more time on) the five-on-three, but I was in full stride, so I thought I could take a shot there,” said O’Dell
“It’s all about confidence and I think that’s the way to describe it. I’m feeling confident right now, that good feeling where you believe you can help make something happen.”
IceCaps’ centre Ben Maxwell, who drew an assist on O’Dell’s goal, was the third star Saturday after finally getting a good night’s sleep.
Maxwell had gone to his hometown of North Vancouver, B.C., during the AHL All-Star break earlier this week, but his trip back to St. John’s Wednesday went awry with persistent problems in making the last leg of the journey, from Halifax to St. John’s. On two occasions, he was on planes set to touch down in St. John’s, but that were rerouted back to Halifax because of high winds buffeting the region. Maxwell finally made it here for Friday’s game, but only after countless hours in Stanfield International Airport and a couple of short, restless stays in a Halifax hotel.
When it was jokingly suggested he should have rented a car and tried for the Gulf ferry, Maxwell, with rather a serious expression answered, “I pondered it.”
Saturday’s game ended with the IceCaps on their seventh power-play of the night after a goalie interference call on the Senators’ Derek Grant. Just prior to that, and with the delayed call pending against Grant, St. John’s effectively ragged the puck to knock the time down to well under two minutes remaining.
No that it didn’t make for a little anxiousness in the stands, what with Pasquale on the bench for an extra attacker, and IceCaps players tossing the puck around, often in their own zone close to the empty cage.
As a player, McCambridge has been on a team that scored against itself in a similar situation, but says he wasn’t too concerned Saturday.
“Not overly,” he said. “We were just making sure we had puck possession and winding down the clock.”
Whether it was the call against Grant or his overall view of Knorr’s work in the series (St. John’s had a total of 16 power plays over the two games, while Binghamton had eight), Senators head coach Luke Richardson was apparently not pleased, with reports he attempted to confront Knorr after the final whistle Saturday.
We do know that the official game sheet shows Richardson was assessed an unsportsmanlike minor and a game misconduct at 20:00 of the third period, with the latter carrying the 75.5 (iii) notation. That’s in reference to the following, from the section in the league rule book that deals with the assessment of game misconducts in situations where:
“Coaches and non-playing Club personnel who have previously been assessed a bench minor penalty for the use of obscene or profane language or gestures anywhere in the rink. A confidential report to the Commissioner shall be completed and filed with the League for possible further disciplinary action.”