By Brendan McCarthy
It's said the better you look, the better you feel.
Well, the St. John's IceCaps looked good — fashion-wise — Saturday night in their special St. Patricks's Day uniforms, but couldn't have been feeling all that good about themselves after a 3-1 loss to the visiting Manchester Monarchs in American Hockey League play at Mile One Centre.
For the second consecutive time this week, the IceCaps came out flat in the opener of a two-game series at Mile One — "tiptoed into the first period" according to IceCaps' head coach Keith McCambridge — and while they managed to tie the score entering the third, never really looked like they were playing the part of a potential winner,
And even though this was another close result in what has been a closely-contested season series with Manchester — the Monarchs' third goal was an empty-netter — that had more to do with a fine performance from St. John's netminder Eddie Pasquale, who made 28 saves behind a turnover-happy squad.
In other words, this was far from a hard-luck loss for the home side.
David Meckler, playing his first game since before Christmas; Yale University product Brian O'Neill, who had the game-winning marker in his professional debut; and veteran Trent Hunter, with the empty-netter, had the goals for Manchester (32-29-3), battling to maintain a playoff position in the AHL's Eastern Conference.
Kevin Clark had the lone goal for St. John's (38-17-7), which continues to hold a healthy 16-point lead in the Atlantic Division and sits second in the Eastern Conference behind the sizzling Norfolk Admirals, winners of 17 straight games.
Despite the loss, St. John's magic number — in terms of points — dropped to nine Saturday because of the Albany Devils' 3-2 shootout loss to the Hershey Bears.
But that also means the IceCaps — with 14 games left, including a rematch with the Monarchs this afternoon at Mile One — still have some work to do to secure a post-season berth. Judging from post-game comments from Clark and IceCaps' defenceman Travis Ramsey, that was a theme McCambridge hammered home to the team.
"We haven't clinched anything yet. There's no 'X' beside our (team) name in the standings," said Clark.
"Norfolk's on a run here and we have some pride we have to play for, and we're not locked into a playoff spot either," said Ramsey as he began listing reasons why the IceCaps should be more motivated than they appeared Saturday.
"We play in front of a packed house on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and you've got to get up for something like that. These fans care and that should be enough. But we have to find it in ourselves to be better."
Earlier in the week, the IceCaps split a series with the Hamilton Bulldogs, turning in a sub-par effort in a 4-2 loss Tuesday, but responding with a dominating 6-0 victory over the Bulldogs on Wednesday.
"I thought again we drifted into the game … tiptoed into the first period, waiting to see what Manchester was going to do," said McCambridge, adding it was "too familiar to the Hamilton series, where we stand around and wait to see how the opposition is going to play.
"That's getting old for me. I'm not going to wait around and wait for guys to get their legs going, to get their games underneath them. I'm going with the guys who who are playing."
McCambridge isn't talking about big lineup changes. With seven players sidelined with injuries and leading scorer Spencer Machacek recalled to Winnipeg earlier in the day, the IceCaps had the bare minimum of 18 healthy skaters Saturday. And that included the newly-signed Scott Zurevinski, who arrived in St. John's mere hours before the game. Outside of rearguard Brett Festerling, who might be able to go this afternoon, St. John's will dress the same 20 players that went Saturday.
What McCambridge was promising was a drastic cutback in the ice time of what he sees as underperformers. There was some indication of that Saturday as he juggled things up front — "a couple of lines were stale," said the coach — and gave more shifts than normal to the likes of rookies Eric O'Dell and Jason Gregoire.
If nothing changes this afternoon, expect stricter implementation of this policy.
"We have players who can play the game in double shifts," said McCambridge
"If I have four lines playing, I'll roll four lines. If I have two lines playing, I'm going with two lines."
Goalie Martin Jones made 26 saves for Manchester, which had lost its previous five meetings with the IceCaps. But according to Clark, the Monarchs iced "a better lineup than we played against (before). That's probably the best lineup we've played (in games) against them this year."
Manchester sits seventh overall in the Eastern Conference, but just four points separate no fewer than seven teams battling for the last two playoff berths in the conference,
"(The Monarchs) have something to prove," observed Ramsey. "A lot of teams are on the bubble coming into this rink. They're really hungry and we need to … come out as hungry as they are."
That obviously didn't' happen Saturday as Manchester took a 1-0 lead after dominating the opening period,.The IceCaps battled back in the middle frame and got Clark's tying goal, but O'Neill backhanded a rebound past Pasquale for the winner just 42 second into the third and St. John's never really regained the initiative.
"Manchester was a motivated team and we were not a motivated team," said McCambridge. "They're a team fighting that's for their playoff lives and we're a team that's trying to find a purpose right now."
Machacek was recalled to Winnipeg after forward Eric Fehr was injured in the Jets' 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals Friday … Zurevinski, a 23-year-old native of Saskatoon, was signed to an amateur try-out contract after completing a four-year U.S. collegiate career at Division 1 Quinnipiac (Conn.) University, where he had 46 goals and 92 points in 155 games. The six-foot-two, 215-pound Zurevinski, a two-year captain at Quinnipiac, made the scoresheet Saturday with a second-period fight with the Monarchs' Richard Clune… The IceCaps' infirmary list didn't change Saturday, with goalie David Aebischer, defencemen Festerling and Derek Meech, and forwards Garth Murray, Max Macenauer, Brock Trotter and Marco Rosa still sidelined … For the fans who packed Mile One Saturday for a 31st straight sell-out, the most exciting moment of the night came in the first intermission when Dennis Tobin scored from centre ice, firing the puck through a small opening in a facing covering the goal to win $10,000 in the Insurance Brokers Association of Newfoundland’s ‘Insurance Goal of the Game’ contest. It's believed to be the first time anyone has won the contest , or one similar to it, in the history of the AHL in St. John's … The IceCaps gave away their beautiful green, shamrock-adorned St. Patrick’s Day jerseys to 25 lucky fans after the game as part of their shirts Off Our Backs promotion …Saturday's Molson Cup three stars: 1. Martin Jones 2. Eddie Pasquale 3. Brian O'Neill … Jason Gregoire was the choice as the Mary Brown's hardest-working IceCap … Pasquale will make an eight straight start this afternoon. The game, with a 4 p.m. start time, will be carried live on Radio CJYQ 930AM and online through links at Steele Communication websites and stjohnsicecaps.com. It will also be carried live on Rogers Television, Channel 9.