Grind time

Robin Short
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IceCaps’ Hill and Riley have skill sets well-suited for post-season play

One is a rough, tough grinding winger, who is happiest hacking and whacking at loose pucks, and a scattered limb or two, somewhere within shouting range of opposing goalies.
The other is a big stay-at-home defenceman, a shot-blocking machine who takes it personal when hockey players of a different jersey colour venture into his end of the ice.
Blair Riley and Jordan Hill combined for a mere 33 points this season. They weren’t among the St. John’s IceCaps’ leaders in minutes played.
But make no mistake, come this time of year — playoff time — players of Riley’s and Hill’s ilk are critical to a post-season run.

Riley, 28, patrols the right side on the IceCaps crash and bang line of Kyle MacKinnon and Patrice Cormier, a trio which figures to play a big role in the Calder Cup playoffs, which open for the IceCaps tonight against the Albany Devils at the Times Union Centre in upstate New York (8:30 p.m. NL time, 930AM).

Ditto for Hill, 25, a bubble player for much of the first half of the year, but now a defenceman whose presence in the lineup is huge.

Riley was signed to an AHL contract last summer, a player with modest scoring totals, despite the fact he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college hockey’s best player in 2009-10, when he and current IceCaps teammate Zach Redmond toiled for Ferris State University.

At the time, St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge lauded the signing, particularly happy with the fact Riley had some, “bite to his game”, and was a player who did a whole lot of the little things on the ice pretty darn good.

The Chase, B.C. native didn’t disappoint, delivering seven goals, 21 points, 133 penalty minutes and a plus-14 rating while appearing in 71 of 76 regular-season games.

“Big body guys, for sure, are a big part of what playoffs are going to be like,” McCambridge said. “You have to ensure you are not a perimeter player, and Blair is not that.

“Blair,” said McCambridge of the 6-0, 215-pound winger, “is a guy who gets you momentum on the forecheck, and he’s been a real reliable guy for us on the defensive side of the puck, also.

“I’ve really enjoyed that line of MacKinnon, Cormier and Riley. They’ve been a good energy, momentum line for us, and I believe you need that.

“My thought process as a coach is that any time momentum is starting to slip, or you need a big shift after a goal-for or a goal against, I like to have a line like that that I can put out on the ice.

“He’s a big piece of that right side. You need big body, strong guys that Blair Riley represents in the playoffs.”

The unlikely trio — Riley is from western Canada, MacKinnon is Los Angeles-born and raised, and Cormier hails from New Brunswick — were united by McCambridge a while ago, and save for a few callups to the Winnipeg Jets for Cormier, have been a constant ever since.

“For whatever reason,” said Riley, “things just kind of clicked. Even the first game after we were put together, we scored a few goals that first weekend.

“We keep it simple … Corms and myself are physical wingers, we get in on the forecheck, Mac has great speed down the middle, is a good puck distributor.

“It’s been a good click.”

As for Hill, he’s still looking for that elusive first goal as an IceCap. Thing is, however, that is not Hill’s thing. Other players are paid to do the scoring, but this former captain of his hometown Sarnia Sting junior club is relied upon to keep pucks out of his net.

“He’s been a steady guy for us all season,” McCambridge said of Hill, who, like Riley, spent part of last season with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. “It hasn’t been one where he’s been up and down … he’s been just a steady defender for us.

“All you need him to do is move pucks to the forwards and be a guy who is really hard to play against in front of the net and down low in our end. He’s been that all season long.

“That’s quite the accomplishment for a player who came in here on a PTO (professional tryout) to start the season. But he was a guy whom we really felt could be one of those players who would evolve and grab the ice time he’s been able to take.”

Hill, 6-2 and 200 pounds, collected 12 assists in 68 games for St. John’s this season, but started to look more and more confident from an offensive standpoint in the second half of the season, lugging the puck with authority.

But don’t think for a moment Hill is abandoning the bread-and-butter part of his game that got him here in the first place — that is tough, defensive hockey, in front of the net and in the corners, and blocking as many shots as possible.

In other words, the stuff that lends to winning playoff games.

“I have to stick to my game, and that’s not scoring,” he said with a grin. “It’s nice to make a big play and score a goal. But my game is a defensive one. Sure, I’ll make reads on the ice, and sometimes jump into the play, but I’m not going to be looking for that all the time.

“It’s about playing physical, jumping down in front of shots and moving the puck.”

A look at Hill’s legs is testament to the fact that while blocking shots is noble, it’s tough work. Half are black, the other half blue. With a few lumps thrown in for good measure.

“It’s something that’s been a huge strength of his game,” said McCambridge of Hill’s shot-blocking. “He’s amongst the leaders on our team.

“As a group, we felt in the summer that was an area where we wanted to get stronger, and we’ve been able to do that. Our guys have taken the ultimate sacrifice in blocking shots for their teammates. Everybody to a man, from our No. 1 centre to our seventh defenceman, has done it.

“It’s those types of things that, in the end, win hockey games.”

And, in the case of Riley and Hill, it’s those types of players you need to win.

Organizations: U.S. college, IceCaps, Times Union Centre Winnipeg Jets for Cormier

Geographic location: New York, Canada, Los Angeles New Brunswick

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