It was a team which, at varying times through the first half of the hockey season, had been dubbed middling and mediocre.
Not good. Not bad. Just there.
The St. John’s IceCaps would win a game, lose a game. Win two in a row, lose three straight. They couldn’t take back-to-back games at Mile One Centre for love nor money.
But through it all, the players, to a man, were telling anyone who would listen it was a good team.
“We’ll show you, just you wait and see,” echoed the familiar mantra.
Guess what? They were bang on. This is a good team. A very good team.
Much credit has to go around here, not the least of which to a man who drops into Mile One only every so often. Craig Heisinger has more miles on him than an ’83 Chevette, as the assistant general manager of the Winnipeg Jets. But in his role as GM of the IceCaps, Zinger’s done a fine job adding a dash here and a pinch there, ingredients that’s produced a dandy recipe.
Minor league free agent Kris Fredheim has emerged as Keith McCambridge’s most dependable rearguard down the stretch. Jordan Hill, who arrived at training camp on a PTO, is the big, tough, shot-blocking defenceman every playoff team needs. Free agent Andrew Gordon was the team’s MVP. Michael Hutchinson, another free agent, is MVP 1A. Jason Jaffray, the captain, was re-signed last summer. Jerome Samson, Kyle MacKinnon and Blair Riley were also signed as free agents.
Heisinger’s got his fingerprints all over this team.
Credit, too, to McCambridge, who dealt with a slew of callups to Winnipeg this season, eight to be exact. Nine, if you count Adam Pardy, which we won’t. Thirty-seven different players wore an IceCaps jersey this season.
But most of the credit has to go to the players. Eddie Pasquale goes down mid-season, opting for hip surgery, and in steps Hutchinson without missing a beat. Just when just about everybody has Carl Klingberg written off, the Swede responds with a 22-goal, 42-point season. Brenden Kichton had an outstanding rookie season, and Adam Lowry wasn’t far behind.
In these playoffs, you’d have to think the IceCaps’ one-two forward line combination punch of Jason Jaffray-Andrew Gordon-John Albert and Eric O’Dell-Kael Mouillierat-Carl Klingberg is as good or better than anything they will face.
Proving this team really does have depth, McCambridge can trot out the Kyle MacKinnon-Blair Riley-Patrice Cormier unit, the defensive conscience up front bringing reliability and a physical presence to the ice.
But all is not exactly perfect, mind you. The proverbial fly in the ointment is the woeful power play, one-for-15 entering Friday’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Concerning, however, is not the God-awful 6.7 per cent clip at which it’s operating, but the few quality scoring chances the IceCaps manage when they do have the man advantage.
If the IceCaps move on to the next round of the playoffs — given the makeup of this unit, a first-round loss would only be regarded as nothing but a failure — the power play must somehow find its spark.
Given a 20 per cent efficiency rate, a reasonable number, four of the past five Calder Cup champions operated at 19, 22, 22 and 21 per cent on the power play through the post season.
The exception to the rule are the Norfolk Admirals from two years ago, who rolled through the regular season and playoffs, but connected for only 13 goals in 103 power play opportunities (12.6 per cent).
The NHL also suggests a thriving power play is not always a prerequisite to a Stanley Cup title.
Last year, the Chicago Blackhawks’ power play operated at just 11.4 per cent (again, keeping in mind upper echelon teams usually have a power play clicking at 19 or 20 per cent or above). Same for the Boston Bruins in 2011. In 2012, the Los Angeles Kings’ power play came in at 12.8 per cent.
But the IceCaps’ 6.7 per cent? That must improve.
The last time the IceCaps were in the playoffs was two years ago, when they beat the Syracuse Crunch and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first two rounds, before running head-on into the Norfolk juggernaut in the conference final.
Today, this may be the best St. John’s team we’ve seen in the American Hockey League since 1993-94, when the Maple Leafs had the best regular season record and featured 12 players with 20 or more goals, including Patrik Augusta’s 50, 45 each from Yanic Perreault and Rich Chernomaz and 35 from Ken McRae.
The Leafs flamed out in the playoffs that year, losing to the Moncton Hawks in the second round. I still remember it.
No pressure, but nothing less than a repeat performance from 2012 — a final four appearance — would be acceptable given this deep and talented group.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort