St. John's holds on for 3-2 win over Penguins, will face Norfolk beginning Thursday in Virginia
The St. John's IceCaps have won other one-goal games in these American Hockey League playoffs.
But not like this one.
With 6,287 fans on their feet and in full voice — Mile One Centre has never been this loud for a hockey contest — the IceCaps hung on for a 3-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Saturday night in a seventh and deciding game of their Eastern Conference final.
With the victory, St. John's moves on to face the AHL regular-season champion Norfolk Admirals in the conference final, beginning Thursday in Norfolk, Va.
Game 2 will be played in Norfolk next Saturday before the series switches to St. John's for three games on Monday, May 21, Tuesday, May 22 and Saturday, May 26. The lengthy break between Games 4 and 5 is because Mile One is booked for two nights for concerts by Hedley. Should the series go further, Games 6 and 7 would be back in southeastern Virginia on May 29 and 30.
IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge is counting on the lessons learned in the Penguins series — and particularly Saturday — to serve a purpose against the Admirals.
"You have to learn to manage pucks. You have to know where you are in games, where the momemntum is and make them come the full lentgh of the ice and work for their chances," said McCambridge.
"I thought we did a really good job ... at key moments of the game when they started to get momentum to seize things, shut it down and get (the puck) back down in their end."
But to defend a lead the IceCaps first had to have a lead.
First star Aaron Gagnon scored twice for St. John's Saturday, including what would stand as the game-winning goal 53 seconds into the third period. Ray Sawada, with a game-opening first-period tally, had the other goal for the IceCaps, who were using their third and final chance to close out the Penguins and the series.
St. John's had three games-to-one lead, but Wilkes-Barre forced Saturday's ultimate match with a 3-2 double overtime win Tuesday at home and 4-2 victory Friday at Mile One.
Gagnon's tallies were an example of the IceCaps' resolve on Saturday. Early in the second period, he had been denied by Thiessen stop on a breakaway and again on a 20-foot shot at the end of an odd-man rush. Add those to Gagnon's failure to score on a shorthanded break at a crucial point of Friday's loss and you might have been left with a player neutralized by frustration.
But the 26-year-old British Columbia native wouldn't succumb.
"I had so many good chances — breakaways, two-on-ones — I might have started gripping my stick a little too tight, but I kind of let the law of averages take over," said Gagnon, who has five goals, eighth points and a plus-four rating in the playoffs.
"You put enough pucks to the net and sometimes it's the ugly ones that go in."
Ryan Craig and Colin McDonald scored on Saturday for the Penguins, who found themselves trailing for most of the game. Craig's goal on a breakaway 6:43 into the second tied the score at 1-1, but less than five minutes later, with the IceCaps on a power play, Gagnon put the home side back in front, slipping a shot through crease traffic and past Wilkes-Barre goalie Brad Thiessen.
Gagnon's second goal came after he skated behind the Penguins net to the left-hand face circle, spun around and wristed a shot past Thiessen, screened effectively by the IceCaps' Ben Maxwell.
A needless boarding penalty to St. John's centre Patrice Cormier midway through the third led to McDonald's man-advantage marker, but the IceCaps hung on, thanks to some timely saves by Eddie Pasqaule when his team suffered a two-minute case of the giveaways, and a couple of big faceoff wins in the late going, the last one by Maxwell.
In the final minute, the full house was standing as one roaring chorus.
"The only thing you can hear is the crowd going and all you can feel is your heart beating," said Gagnon.
"It's the kind of moment you play for."
That exhilaration of the victors is balanced by the disappointment of the losers. However, the pride may be equal, no matter which side of the score you fall on.
"It was a great effort and I'm really proud of the fact we went in and we battled and we went down swinging," said Wilkes-Barre head coach John Hynes. "We really felt we worked for it and fought until the end. We were one goal worse than them."
Given that assessment, you could pick any of the three St. John's goals as the difference-maker Saturday, but given that Sawada and linemates John Albert and Garth Murray are best known as a gritty, energy-expending shutdown group, Sawada's goal and the overall offensive atttude of the unit in Game 7 might be seen as having provided the IceCaps with an edge.
"We were pretty upset about being on the ice for the winning goal (Friday) so it was pretty important for us to come out and have a good game. We probably would have been heartbroken if we didn't," said Murray.
"I saw Alby (Albert) after the game last night. He saw me. We just sat down beside each other and didn't say I word. Some things you just know. Then you go out and do."