Masters of momentum

Robin Short
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The St. John’s IceCaps’ Blair Riley (25) and Kyle MacKinnon converge on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ Conor Sheary during Game 1 of the teams’ American Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal series last Saturday in St. John’s. Riley, MacKinnon and linemate Patrice Cormier aren’t counted on for their offence — the line has just two goals in the post-season, both by MacKinnon — but more so for their unrelenting physical style of play that has opposing players on guard.

IceCaps trio of MacKinnon, Riley and Cormier prove to be game-changing unit

They have a grand total of two combined goals in the playoffs — and both of those have been scored by Kyle MacKinnon — but the St. John’s IceCaps’ trio of MacKinnon, Blair Riley and Patrice Cormier has arguably been the team’s best forward line in the Calder Cup playoffs.
These three aren’t going to win any bonus points for style. They are very much blue collar, meat and spuds types, but, boy, have they been effective for the IceCaps, who are tied with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 1-1 entering tonight’s Game 3 of the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final in Pennsylvania.

“I like the line… I like it a lot,” said St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge.

That’s a vanilla statement from most coaches. From McCambridge, who doesn’t usually throw out bouquets, that’s, well, a ‘statement’. It means he really, really likes the trio.

And why wouldn’t he? Forget the fact Cormier and Riley are still looking for their first goals. These three bring an unrelenting physical element to the IceCaps, a line that has opposing players peeking over their shoulders, a line that McCambridge relies on to turn momentum in the IceCaps’ favour if he feel the opposition is coming on too strong.

“They come at you in waves, the three of them,” he said. “They can all skate, they can all get in on the forecheck.

“When they’re on their game, they’re hard to play against. And they’re on their game right now.”

The three come from very different backgrounds.

MacKinnon, a 26-year-old spiritual man, hails from Walnut, Calif., outside L.A., and played four years at Providence College before toiling two winters with the AHL’s Providence Bruins after signing as an undrafted free agent.

Cormier, 23, and a former world junior captain, is from New Brunswick and has been regarded as a pro prospect for a few years. He was drafted 54th overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2008 after four years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Riley, 28, was also an undrafted free agent, a B.C. boy who’s toiled with seven different teams since finishing college at Ferris State in 2010.

They also bring a different dynamic to the ice, though Cormier and Riley are somewhat similar. Both are big, rugged forwards, happiest when they’re throwing their weight around. MacKinnon is the darty pivot, scooting about picking up loose pucks after his wingers are done doing their thing.

“We communicate well on the ice,” said MacKinnon, who finished the year with 12 goals and 39 points (Cormier had nine and 26, Riley seven and 21). “I know everyone likes or tries to do that, but this is the first time I’ve been able to communicate that well together with linemates on the ice.

“We’re similar players in that we want to get in on the forecheck, be physical and I think that’s where we’ve been successful.”

The three came together the first game after the all-star break, and have been inseparable since.

McCambridge was looking for an “energy” line, one of many new hockey terms these days, although he was reluctant to put those three together initially because Cormier has proven to be a strong centre in the past.

“But it’s worked,” he said. “They were our best line for a portion during the season.

“They seize back momentum for us. They’re the line that nine times out of 10, if we get scored against, they’re the ones going over the boards, the ones who get momentum back on our side.”

MacKinnon, Cormier and Riley have embraced their roles, to a point where, McCambridge said, they take pride in being the St. John’s “shutdown” unit.

“We’ve noticed that Keith has put that role on us, especially after we score or we’re scored on,” MacKinnon said. “And we like that challenge.

“Corms and I, especially, we take pride in being good faceoff guys and it’s always a good thing that when the other team has momentum, you go out there to win a key draw and get the puck out of our zone.

“We definitely like that role, and we’ve taken advantage of it.”

Organizations: Providence College, IceCaps, New Jersey Devils

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Quebec, B.C. Ferris

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