The St. John’s IceCaps have become kind of familiar with this idea of facing an unfamiliar opponent.
For the third time in four series during these American Hockey League Calder Cup playoffs, the IceCaps are preparing to take on a team they didn’t play at all in the regular season. Although truth be told, that if you projected St. John’s to get this far — to the Calder Cup final — you might have expected it to turn out this way.
The Eastern Conference champion IceCaps and Western Conference champions Texas Stars — two teams which have never faced each other since St. John’s arrived in the league three years ago — face off for the AHL title beginning Sunday in Cedar Park, Tex., a suburb of Austin.
In a league where there is a restricted amount of inter-conference play in the regular-season, AHL finals like this are the norm. In fact, the last time regular-season opponents met in a “for the whole shebang” series was 2000-01, when the St. John’s Maple Leafs still played at old Memorial Stadium and when the Saint John Flames and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins squared off in the final.
However, the IceCaps have taken this business of mystery matchups to a new extreme this spring, having already knocked off the Albany Devils and Norfolk Admirals, Eastern Conference teams they didn’t see in the regular season, in the first two rounds. Only the Penguins, whom they dispatched in a six-game conference final that concluded with a 5-0 win Tuesday night at Mile One Centre, fell into the “seen you recently” category.
At least St. John’s had coach Keith McCambridge and his staff must have the business of video pre-scouting down pat.
Meech has added much to Texas defence
There is at one player in the Stars’ lineup with whom McCambridge and more than a few of the IceCaps are well-acquainted. That’s defenceman Derek Meech who played a total of 52 games for St. John’s in 2011-12 and 2012-13, was a key performer in the IceCaps’ playoff run in 2012 and represented the club at the 2013 AHL All-Star game.
The 30-year-old Meech began this season in Belarus with Dynamo Minsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, but left in November when he and the team mutually agreed to terminate his contract because of health reasons.
Meech has a condition that affects the conduction system of his heart, one of which he’s been aware of been for nearly a decade and for which he’s regularly tested. But Minsk wanted him to undergo a procedure he wasn’t comfortable with, and one which his North American doctors felt wasn’t absolutely necessarily. That led to the parting and his eventual signing with the Stars, who went to finish with the best-overall record in the AHL (48-18-10) and like St. John’s, have gone 11-5 in these playoffs.
In 36 regular-season games with Texas, Meech had two goals and 15 assists, but just as he did with St. John’s a couple of years ago, he’s picked up his offensive pace in the post-season, leading all Stars rearguards in scoring — and tied for third overall among all players on the team — with 11 points (three goals, eight assists).
Stars' lineup includes league MVP and top rookie
As for other Texas players, many are known by reputation, including centre Travis Morin, another 30-year-old who led the AHL in scoring this season (88 points on 32 goals and 56 assists in 66 games) and was named the league MVP. Yet another award-winner on the stars is British Columbia native and University of Miami-Ohio product Curtis McKenzie (27-38-65), the AHL rookie of the year for 2013-14.
Besides Meech, who has played in the NHL with Detroit and Winnipeg, others on the Texas roster who have 40 or more big-league games are forwards Dustin Jeffrey, the former Pittsburgh Penguin, Chris Mueller, who skated with the Nashville Predators for parts of three seasons; and Toby Petersen, who has seen action in nearly 400 games with Pittsburgh, Edmonton and Dallas, but hasn’t played for Texas since the second round against Grand Rapids.
Jeffery, Mueller and defenceman Patrick Nemeth came down from the parent team in Dallas after the NHL Stars were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Texas didn’t get back right-winger Colton Sceviour, who had 32 goals and 63 points in 54 games in the AHL this season.
However, others have picked up the offensive slack during the Stars’ post-season run, including Mike Hedden, who leads the team in playoff scoring with 15 points in 16 games; former Swift Current Bronco Justin Dowling (4-7-11 in nine games), and rookie winger Brendan Ranford, nephew of former NHL goalie Bill Ranford, who has 10 points in 16 games and Scott Glennie (not the son of former NHL defenceman Brian Glennie), the first-round pick (eighth overall) of the NHL Stars in 2009
Bringing size to the forward lines are six-foot-four Brett Ritchie, a Dallas second-round pick from that same 2009 draft; a couple of six-foot-three Czech rookies, Matej Stransky and Radek Faksa; and former University of New Brunswick scoring star Kevin Henderson, also six-foot-three.
Some big D in Texas
But by far the biggest player for Texas is six-foot-seven, 240-pound defenceman Jamie Oleksiak, Dallas’s first-rounder from 2011. He’s part of a blueline group that includes Meech; Nemeth, a six-foot-three Swede and 2010 second-round pick; Cameron Gaunce, who has seen some NHL duty with Colorado and Dallas; Finnish rookie Jyrki Jokipakka; and the widely-respected Maxime Fortunus, the Texas captain who has put in more than 600 games in a decade of service in the AHL, almost all of it with the Manitoba Moose and Stars.
It’s not a defensive group that produces much in the way of goals. In fact, of the six mentioned above, only Meech has scored through the Stars’ first 16 playoff games, but everyone of them is a plus-rated player who is particularly adept on the Texas side of the centre-ice line.
Goalie already has championship to his credit
The last line of defence lately has been goaltender Christopher Nilstorp, a 30 year-old who won an Elite League championship with Farjestads in his native Sweden three years ago.
In an unorthodox approach, Texas head coach Willie Desjardins, rotated Nilstorp and top prospect and 2010 first-round pick Jack Campbell through the first part of the playoffs, including a three-game sweep of Oklahoma City in the shortened first round; and the first couple of games against the defending champion Grand Rapids Griffins. But Campbell, the goalie for the United States when it won the 2010 world junior hockey championship, was hurt during the series against the Griffins and Nilstorp took over, helping finish off Grand Rapids before backstopping the Stars in a conference final against the Toronto Marlies that went the full seven games, with the Stars finishing things off with a 6-2 Monday night in Cedar Park.
Campbell has been working out in recent practices, so there is a chance he could see action in the final, but Nilstorp has been effective, limiting the opposition to two or fewer goals in six of his last nine starts.
He’s been helped by a potent and deep forward group, one that helped contribute to a 280-169 shots advantage in the series with the Marlies, even though goals were even at 20-20 (giving you an idea of how good Toronto netminder Drew McIntyre was in the series).
Guiding the entire Texas group is Desjardins, a former Canadian world junior coach (silver medal, 2010) who led the Medicine Hat Tigers to WHL titles in 2004 and 2007. You’ve probably heard his name a lot recently in speculation about candidates to fill NHL coaching vacancies.
That buzz is bound to be even greater if the Stars, making their second ever apperarance in an AHL final, manage to win it all for the first time.