Those who believe in parallel universes might be able to envision the past week going differently for the St. John’s IceCaps. Perhaps they count on the existence, on some plane, of a scenario where the IceCaps don’t give up two goals late in Tuesday night’s matchup against the Worcester Sharks and hold on to win for a third straight game, thereby setting themselves up for the successful Mile One Centre home stand they so desperately needed.
Unfortunately for the IceCaps and their faithful, the only earthly record we have is the one that shows St. John’s did not win Tuesday, starting the team on a mostly painful-to-watch downward spiral, one that saw them lose four consecutive contests, getting outscored 18-6 in the process.
It was all capped off by a couple of weekend losses to the Connecticut Whale, who followed up a 4-1 win Saturday night with a 7-3 Sunday afternoon romp.
In both cases, the Whale were up 2-0 before the pre-game sheen was off the ice. The IceCaps never led either day. In fact, of the 120 total minutes played, Connecticut held a two-goal or more lead for 106 minutes and 36 seconds.
In other words, the IceCaps may have been present, but were never really in the series.
Connecticut and St. John’s entered the weekend 12th and 13th, respectively, in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, with just a point separating them. Today, the IceCaps (21-26-3) find themselves where they started position-wise, but now five points out of eighth place, the final playoff berth in the conference. The fact eighth is shared by the Sharks and Whale (22-21-6), the teams that just swept them in back-to-back series at Mile One, has to make for some extra wincing when the IceCaps check the standings.
And check them they do.
“We see it every day. It’s on the board in there,” said St. John’s centre Aaron Gagnon, nodding his head toward the IceCap’s dressing room. “You can’t stare every day and hope to be up there. We have four or five teams we have to get past (to get into playoff position). It’s not an easy task.
“But this time of year, coming into February and March, a lot of teams just kind of look at the schedule and say, ‘Look how many games we have left’ and things can drag on for them. Hopefully, we can catch other teams doing that.”
After Saturday’s game, IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge vowed to, “push, pull, drag and scrape and claw to get these guys into the playoffs.”
Still, it’s gotten to the point where before St. John’s can plot any sort of a course that might conceivably put them in a playoff port, there must be repairs to the ship.
Most alarmingly, at least based on the weekend, that might also involve the goaltending, which had been the IceCaps’ one sure thing up to now. But on Saturday, Eddie Pasquale, making his 13th straight start, gave up goals on the first two shots of the game, and three on the first five. Mark Dekanich got the call Sunday, making his first start since Jan. 5, but after he surrendered goals to Connecticut’s Mike Haley in the first 4:03 of the contest, he was gone after facing just five shots.
Pasquale didn’t fare much better in relief, giving up five more goals on 20 shots.
To be fair, almost every goal against came with shared defensive responsibility. Bad rebounds? Yes, there were those on Sunday, but there was also a lot of bad marking and sloppy turnovers by St. John’s defenders. And there were penalties that led to two Whale power-play goals, including a five-on-three tally in the first period, which further downgraded the IceCaps’ penalty kill, now second-worst in the AHL.
“Defensive miscues and miscalculations on our penalty kill and not able to get the big saves right now when we need them compared to what the other goalie (Connecticut’s Cam Talbot, who played both games) did in this series is why we lost two games,” said McCambridge.
“When I watch other goaltenders, they look like the goaltenders of the month playing against us.”
In assessment, and to the surprise of some, McCambridge preferred his team’s performance in Sunday’s game, which saw captain Jason Jaffray — the most constant player the IceCaps have right now — score twice, while Gagnon, coming off a knee injury and playing for the first time in more than five weeks, pick up two assists, including one on Kevin Clark’s sixth goal of the season.
“I liked our will. Obviously, the score doesn’t indicate that. But again, we find ourselves chasing the lead early,” McCambridge said.
“We have taken some steps back. Call it lack of confidence. Call it frustration. There are all kinds of different ways to look at it, but you can’t take steps back like that.”
After going 2-4 on their latest homestand, the IceCaps now own a 9-15-2 record at Mile One, by far the worst home record in the league. That includes just three wins in their last 15 games in the building.
A team can’t perform like that and not generate plenty of grumbling among those who have packed the stands for a season-and-a-half, while at the same time creating some calls for change.
But those familiar with the AHL know that change — at least drastic change — rarely happens mid-season. Tweaks and adjustments, maybe, but an overhaul is usually summer stuff.
One known change happening for the IceCaps later this week will be location. On Thursday, the team hits the road for six games spread over a two-week period.
“Maybe going on the road and get out of here will be a good thing for us,” said Gagnon.
McCambridge acknowledged home can be a tougher place for teams in the midst of a slump, but added that a turnabout in fortunes at Mile One will have to happen at Mile One, not in New England or southern Ontario.
“You definitely put more pressure on yourself (to) execute well in front of the home crowd, maybe trying to play too cute of a game at times,” he said. “But you should be able to have an above-.500 record at home. You should be able to get the crowd into it through physical play, through goals being scored, through getting momentum on your side and therefore back up the opposoition a little bit. But that hasn’t been the case for us.
“At this point of the season, you have to win on ice. If you’re going to have any success, you’re going have to win in front of your home crowd here. You have to take advantage of the building and give (the fans) something to cheer about. You’re not going to be a playoff team if you can’t win games at home.”
The IceCaps actually outshot Connecticut in both games, 66-45 in total, including 28-25 on Sunday ... The return of Aaron Gagnon to the St. John’s lineup created a surplus of veterans under AHL lineup regulations, which was satisfied by making defenceman Richard Petiot a healthy scratch. Rookie rearguard Will O’Neill took his place ... Carl Klingberg had the only St. John’s goal Saturday, snapping his personal 12-game scoring drought ... Connecticut rookie forward Christian Thomas, the son of longtime NHLer Steve Thomas, had a goal and three assists over the two games ... Former St. John’s Maple Leaf Kris Newbury, now the Whale’s captain and leading scorer, had a goal and two assists Sunday afternoon...