Column: Something worth hammering home for IceCaps

Brendan McCarthy
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It is a topic, Keith McCambridge says, that’s been “discussed 10 times over.”     
And dwelled upon even more.

“Without a doubt, it is something I’ve thought about for two-and-a-half years,” said the St. John’s IceCaps’ coach whose team begins a four-game home stand — its only home games in December — tonight against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Mile One Centre.

The twice-referred to ‘it’ here is the IceCaps’ record at home.

Granted, it’s not a terrible record. So far this season, St. John’s is 4-2-3 at Mile One, which puts it at 13th, just above the American Hockey League median when it comes to average points-per-home game. And in the 85 total regular-season home games they have played since arriving on the scene in 2011, the IceCaps are just above .500 (in points terms) at 37-36-12.

That’s usually indicative of a team that wins and loses alternately. That’s been pretty much the case. And it’s been very much the problem.

Except for a few bright weeks in February and March of 2012, when they won six straight against visiting clubs, the IceCaps have never been able to maintain any real successful runs at home. A couple of three-game skeins, a half-dozen two-game streaks and the rest of their showings at Mile One has been largely of the win-one/lose one (or vice versa) description.

The IceCaps need — almost desperately need — to demonstrate some kind ability to make home ice count for something more than a half-take in points.

That’s not to say they need to be dominant, they just have to get to the point where they can see what dominance looks like, to get close enough to believe that they might be able get there.

This homestand, which also sees them play the Penguins Saturday and the Syracuse Crunch Tuesday and Wednesday, would be a great place to start. The East Division-leading Penguins (13-5-3) and Crunch (11-7-2) are both very good teams and ones the IceCaps (11-9-3) are either chasing (in Wilkes-Barre’s case) or trying to stay ahead of (Syracuse) in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.

How they do they do it? What needs to be overcome? What needs to be understood? 

After two-and-a-half years of discussion and thought, there still have been no clear-cut answers, but plenty of plausible theories, perhaps the most prominent having to do with emotion and the ability for immediate retribution provided by a schedule that has the IceCaps playing the same visiting opponent in two straight (and now, in some cases, three straight) contests. In other words, if the IceCaps beat a team at Mile One on a Friday, perhaps they have created their own problem by providing that same club the motivation to take something back home other then the memory of a couple of losses before a sellout crowd.

If St. John’s was playing a different visiting team on Saturday, that might not be such on a concern.

But whatever the reason — or more likely, combination of reasons — for the mediocrity at Mile One, let’s believe that there is a solution, something like that old Caramilk problem, where you’re not sure how the filling gets into the chocolate, but you're convinced that it can be done.

In fact, McCambridge said the home-ice enigma was largely at mind over the summer, when work was done to put together the current IceCaps, including some concentration on bringing in more speed to provide a game pace that could help generate even more energy from the full houses at Mile One.

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But if the moves don’t really work, if the would-be solutions don’t pan out, St. John’s will be what it is now: a decent club that’s just inside the playoff-position fence. If the IceCaps are to be something more, they need a home-ice record that emulates those ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings, teams like the Manchester Monarchs, Springfield Falcons, Binghamton Senators and Penguins.

The Monarchs are 8-1-1 at home, including a seven-game wins streak. The Falcons are 9-2-0 in Springfield, including a five-game victory string. The Senators are 7-2-0-1 in Bingo and just had their own five-game home streak halted in a 4-3 loss to the IceCaps on Saturday. The Pens are 6-3-1 in Wilkes-Barre.

That’s the difference — the straight-out points difference — between them and the likes of the Providence Bruins, IceCaps, and Crunch, who sit sixth, seventh and eighth in the conference standings, all of them with records at, or at about, .500 at home so far this season.

After this homestand and their annual late December road trip split up by the Christmas break, the IceCaps will have a schedule — starting in the New Year — that has them playing 25 of 44 games at Mile One. That’s almost exactly two-thirds of their home schedule.

That’s an opportunity, but only if the “advantage” part of home-ice advantage is utilized. Otherwise, it will be more of the same, with a team stuck somewhere between OK and Alright.

You can be sure that’s not the map plan that was drawn up before the start of the season.

Organizations: IceCaps, American Hockey League, Penguins Providence Bruins

Geographic location: Wilkes-Barre, Syracuse, Springfield Bingo

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