IceCaps getting out what they put in

Robin Short
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The St. John's IceCaps’ Jason Jaffray  (19) gets out of the way of a shot from teammate Eric O’Dell (14) during an American Hockey League game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers Saturday night at Mile One Centre. In net for the Sound Tigers is Kevin Poulin, while Alan Quine (22) and Andrey Pedan (3) and Marc Cantin (15) defend. The IceCaps won 3-2.

Hard-working St. John’s team improves to fourth in Eastern Conference

Depending on what happens to the St. John’s IceCaps’ fortunes in this year’s Calder Cup playoffs — and given their standing in the Eastern Conference today, sitting comfortably in fourth place, the IceCaps are playoff-bound save for a late-season collapse — the team’s turning point just might be pinpointed to a Saturday night early in the New Year when the Manchester Monarchs took the IceCaps to school on St. John’s ice.

On Jan. 18, the IceCaps laid an egg to the tune of an embarrassing 6-0 loss to the league-leading Monarchs. The result followed a 4-1 IceCaps win the previous night.

It was after the loss that team captain Jason Jaffray called a players-only meeting inside the team’s Mile One digs. Noone, outside the players, knows for certain what was said but it’s not a stretch to suggest Jaffray reminded those wearing blue and white jerseys they’d just been slapped in the face, kicked in the groin and generally humiliated at home before an angry and agitated sellout crowd.

“If anyone can sleep tonight,” Jaffray told reporters afterwards, “they shouldn’t be in our dressing room, I’ll tell you that.”

So disgusted was Jaffray that he offered up free tickets to the next St. John’s game to a young contest winner and his family who won the right to meet the captain after languishing through the three miserable periods.

Well, guess what? Since that Manchester beatdown, the IceCaps are the American Hockey League’s hottest team, going 16-4.

The latest win was a 3-2 overtime decision over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers Saturday night at Mile One, a franchise record eighth straight win for the IceCaps, who sit in fourth place in the American Hockey League’s East with a 36-19-1-3 record.

“Definitely, definitely,” Jaffray said Saturday when asked if that Manchester game was a turning point in the season so far. “It wasn’t a huge speech. I think everyone realized that maybe we weren’t as good as we thought we were. Manchester was the top team in the league at the time, and they absolutely embarrassed us on home ice. It was one of those meetings that had to be called, and it woke the boys up, I think.

“Everybody realized that we weren’t a skilled hockey team. We’re not a skilled team. We’re a hard-working team that draws a lot of penalties due to how hard we skate and how hard we backcheck, how hard we track pucks on the ice.

“We realized that after the game. We realized the way we had to play was to grind it out for 60 minutes of in-your-face hockey. There are not too many games in this eight-game streak that you can say we didn’t play a 60-minute game.”

The IceCaps must be living right these days. They lose starting goalie Eddie Pasquale to season-ending surgery and Michael Hutchinson steps in and promptly goes 14-3-1. Eight players are in double digits in goals. They wear down an NHL goalie in the Sound Tigers’ Kevin Poulin (he’s 11-16-1 for the parent New York Islanders this season) over the weekend, bombarding Poulin with 73 shots, minus John Albert, who is on recall to Winnipeg, and Carl Klingberg and Kael Mouillierat, who are injured and missed Saturday’s game.

The way things are going, no wonder Jaffray says he wished the playoffs were starting tomorrow.

To a man, the IceCaps kept the faith all season, even when they were a middling win-a-game, lose-a-game team, one that was incapable of putting away teams in a two-game, back-to-back homestand.

That seems like ancient history now for a St. John’s club that actually has the second-most wins in the East (the IceCaps are fourth overall in the conference because the top three seeds go to the divisional leaders, and St. John’s trails Manchester in the Atlantic Division).

As Andrew Gordon says, “right now, we’re rolling and we’re really feeling real confident.”

Gordon also agrees the shutout loss to the Monarchs in January was a turning point to the season, though he also points out it’s been a case of a team that is now, as the playoff stretch looms, learning how to win.

“It’s not like we woke up the next morning and said, ‘Let’s win now.’ You have to work and practice those habits that allow you to win ... you have to learn how close out those third periods and come with energy in the first period of every game.

“But don’t get me wrong, it was a low point, for sure ... rock bottom.

“At the time, it took a veteran leader like Jaff to step up and bring it to our attention. And when someone like that steps up and speaks, you listen. He’s got that respect. When Jaff stands up and talks, that’s the law.

“It’s guys like him who are pushing us in this direction, and he’s bringing it every night. When you hear the words that he’s embarrassed by this team right now, that’s stings you.”

Certainly one of the players who took notice is 20-year-old Adam Lowry, who’s scored 10 times in that 20-game stretch, a streak which included goals in five straight games.

See PIRATES, page B2

The latest came Saturday night as the rangy rookie from the Swift Current Broncos scored with 25 second remaining in the extra session. Lowry took a pass from Patrice Cormier and had a partial breakaway on Poulin (Sound Tigers defenceman Dallas Jackson fell on the play, giving Lowry all the room he needed), beating the Bridgeport netminder for his 15th goal of the season.

Eric O’Dell, with his 16th, and Gordon, with his 19th, tying him for the team lead with Jerome Samson, also scored for the IceCaps. Jaffray had two assists.

Scooter Vaughan and Aaron Ness, with a shorthanded goal, an IceCaps Achilles heel this season, replied.

Hutchinson made 15 saves.

Friday night, St. John’s won 3-2 with Jaffray collecting a pair of helpers in that game as well. Blair Riley, a former Sound Tiger, had a goal and an assist.

The IceCaps prepare to play host to the Portland Pirates Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and the status of Klingberg and Mouillierat remains up in the air. Klingberg was caught by Ness in a knee-on-knee collision with less than two minutes remaining Friday night (Ness received a five-minute major and game misconduct), and was seen walking gingerly outside the IceCaps’ dressing room Saturday.

Mouillierat, the team’s leading scorer with 49 points, was injured in what coach Keith McCambridge would only describe as a “contact” play.

The two will be re-examined prior to Wednesday’s game.

The Pirates come to town minus three defencemen they lost at the NHL trade deadline last week — Rotislav Klesla, David Rundblad and Mathieu Brisebois. Portland did not get any rearguards in return.

Organizations: IceCaps, Monarchs, American Hockey League NHL New York Islanders

Geographic location: Manchester, Winnipeg, Bridgeport Portland

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