By Brendan McCarthy
Some players worth watching in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Eastern Conference semifinal between the St. John’s IceCaps and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, beginning tonight at Mile One Centre:
St. John’s IceCaps
Michael Hutchinson (G): In his previous three AHL seasons, all with the Providence Bruins, Hutchinson played a total of 49 minutes in the playoffs, but this spring, he’s like performing like a post-season veteran, with a 7-3 record, 1.77 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, the latter two stats putting him in the top five during these Calder Cup playoffs. Worth noting: the most Hutchinson has ever played in the post-season was 12 games with the OHL London Knights in 2009-10. Other than that, three games was his biggest playoff workload before this year.
Josh Morrissey (D): Graduating junior players are often surprised by the jump up in level to the AHL and end up taking a half-season or more to adapt (St. John’s forward Adam Lowry might be an example). It’s usually even tougher for defencemen, but Morrissey, who has six playoff points (2G, 4A), all in the series against Norfolk, has adapted quickly since arriving from the WHL a month ago, helped by the fact he may be the best overall skater on the team and the possessor of on-ice hockey wisdom far beyond his 19 years. His play has been such that talk is percolating about the possibility of him forgoing his final year of junior and cracking the Winnipeg Jets’ lineup next season (he’s not age-eligible to play in the AHL in 2014-15).
Andrew Gordon (F): As the IceCaps travel forward through the Calder Cup playoff bracket, they have no better signpost that Gordon, who played on back-to-back AHL championship teams in Hershey (2009, 2010). But it certainly hasn’t been all about reputation with Gordon in these playoffs, who leads St. John’s in scoring with eight points, including six goals.
Zach Redmond (D): Redmond has seven assists and a team-leading plus-eight rating for the IceCaps in the playoffs. The further St. John’s proceeds in the playoffs, the better for the 25-year-old, who is in line to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Eric O’Dell (F): The third-year centre spent almost half the season in Winnipeg, becoming a dad for the first time during the time with his Jets. But he’s neither been sulky or distracted since being sent back to St. John’s at the end of the NHL regular season, and leads the IceCaps with seven playoff goals, although he’s still waiting for his first assist.
Jason Jaffray (F): After dressing for 85 straight games this season (76 in regular season and nine in the playoffs), the IceCaps’ captain didn’t play in Game 6 of the conference semifinal against Norfolk because of injury and is listed as day-to-day heading into the series versus the Penguins. How important has Jaffray been to St. John’s so far in the playoffs? Jason Iacona (@nafsnep), who writes a blog on the AHL Penguins, tweeted a chart that shows Jaffray is plus-10 when it comes to total goals/for and against (even-strength and power-play) in the playoffs. That’s tied with Wilkes-Barre’s Chuck Kobasew for the best among all players on the Penguins and IceCaps.
John Albert and Carl Klingberg (Fs): Both were 20-plus goal scorers in the regular season, but have just one goal each through 10 playoff games. It can’t be for lack of trying however, as they lead the team in shots on goal (30 for Klingberg and 28 for Albert).
Brian Gibbons (F): Gibbons’ arrival in Wilkes-Barre after the parent Pittsburgh Penguins were knocked off by the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs was well-timed for the farm club. The AHL Pens had lost No. 1 centre Andrew Ebbett to injury after their first-round series win over the Binghamton Senators, and Gibbons certainly has the skill to fill the vacancy.
Conor Sheary (F): Sheary was a very good player at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for four years, finishing up this season as the Lowell co-captain and leading scorer before signing an ATO with Wilkes-Barre. But even the Penguins have to be a little surprised (pleasantly, to be sure) at how the undrafted Sheary has performed since turning pro. The five-foot-nine, 175-pounder from suburban Boston has been solid for Wilkes-Barre, putting up nine points in nine playoff games.
Peter Mannino (G): There have been more than a few times in the last few seasons when Mannino’s career appeared to be on the downswing, but he keeps bouncing back. In 2012, when he was with St. John’s and one of the most popular players in the dressing room, the IceCaps dealt with a three-goalie logjam (David Aebischer and Eddie Pasquale were the other two) by assigning Mannino to the ECHL and eventually loaning him to Portland at the 2012 AHL trade deadline. He played with the Manchester Monarchs last season, then hooked on with Wilkes-Barre last fall, only to face another demotion to the ECHL in November, one he balked at. That led to a suspension that kept him inactive for 12 weeks, but by March, Mannino was back with the Penguins and had taken over the No. 1 role. He’s played every playoff minute for Wilkes-Barre this spring and although his numbers aren’t spectacular (2.51 GAA and .901 save percentage), he has shown a knack for big, timely saves.
Spencer Machacek (F): Machacek had 33 points in a season split between Springfield and Wilkes-Barre (he came to the Penguins in a mid-season trade), but has just two assists in seven playoff games. He may be due for some sort of breakout, as he’s without a goal through 23 Calder Cup playoff games, stretching back to St. John’s springtime run in 2012. Remember when he was the IceCaps’ leading scorer in their inaugural season?
Chuck Kobasew (F): Kobasew played with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters during the 2004-05 NHL lockout year, then spent a full decade in the big-time with Calgary, Boston, Colorado, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. In March, the Penguins sent him to Wilkes-Barre, where his numbers have shown no sign of unhappiness with his minor-league return after so many years. Kobasew scored 11 goals in 12 regular-season games and is the AHL Pens’ co-scoring leader in the playoffs (11 points in 11 games).
Brendan Mikkelson (D): A Memorial Cup all-star in 2007 with the champion Vancouver Giants (Machacek was a teammate on that club), Mikkelson has played for six different AHL teams including Wilkes-Barre, since then, but has also seen 131 games in the NHL with Anaheim, Calgary and Tampa Bay. Comes from a true hockey family: His father, Bill, played as a defenceman in the NHL with Los Angeles, the Islanders and Washington during the 1970s; his great uncle, Jim McFadden (one of only six Irish-born NHLers), won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie with Detroit in 1948 and was part of the Red Wings’ Stanley-Cup winners two years later; and his his sister Meaghan, also a defenceman, is a member of Canada’s national women's team, winning gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Brian Dumoulin (D): With two goals and nine assists, Dumoulin shares team post-season scoring lead with Kobasew. A native of Biddeford, Me., he played at Boston College, winning a national championship in 2012, the same year he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey. Originally a second-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, Dumoulin’s rights were traded to the Penguins in the the deal that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina almost two years ago.