St. John’s IceCaps netminder Michael Hutchinson (left) has been a revelation between the pipes since arriving from the ECHL’s Ontario (Calif.) Reign in January. The puckstop has been a key part of the team’s success and run to the Calder Cup Final.
©— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
CEDAR PARK, Texas — Regardless of what unfolds in the next couple of weeks, this 2013-14 St. John’s IceCaps’ season has been, well — ummm — interesting.
A success? No question. Baffling? Yup, that too.
This was a year the IceCaps couldn’t win consistently on home ice, couldn’t score a power play goal to save their lives. But guess what? They persevered and tomorrow open the American Hockey League’s championship series in the land of Stetsons and cowboy boots, in Texas against the Stars.
Game 1 of the Calder Cup final goes 10 o’clock (NL time) Sunday night, with Game 2 10 p.m. Monday. The series returns to St. John’s for three games next Wednesday, Monday, June 16 and Tuesday, June 17. If Games 6 and 7 are required, they will be played in Texas Thursday, June 19 and Monday, June 23.
Here’s a look at what could be considered five dates that defined the IceCaps’ season:
• October 5, a 5-1 win over the Providence Bruins
For the first time in the brief three-year history of the IceCaps, St. John’s opened a new season on home ice, against the Providence Bruins on Friday, Oct. 4.
Things weren’t going quite according to plan, as the Bruins led 3-1 with about seven-and-a-half minutes to go in regulation time.
Then, with less than two minutes remaining in the third, rookie J.C. Lipon scored to pull St. John’s within one. And with 57 seconds left on the clock, Eric O’Dell — who would go on to play 30 games for the Winnipeg Jets — beat Niklas Svedberg to tie the game.
But the IceCaps’ luck ran out in OT. With St. John’s controlling the play in the offensive zone, the puck came back to IceCaps’ defenceman Will O'Neill just inside the blueline. As O’Neill went to deliver a slapshot, his stick broke and the Bruins’ Nick Johnson scooped up the loose puck and skated the length of the ice, finishing up his breakaway by slipping a backhand shot past Eddie Pasquale.
Here we go again, fans grumbled. The IceCaps, after all, finished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference last season.
But this year, we would learn, would be different.
Rather, St. John’s came out and dominated in the Saturday night rematch, beating the Bruins 5-1 on the strength of an O’Dell hat trick.
The IceCaps led 2-0 after one period and 3-0 after 40 minutes. Newcomer Jerome Samson had a goal and two assists and rookie defenceman Brenden Kichton, who was the Western Hockey League’s top rearguard last season, had a goal and a helper.
Eddie Pasquale stopped 36 or 37 shots for the win.
• January 18, a 6-0 loss to the Manchester Monarchs
On that Saturday night, the IceCaps laid an egg 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 had won the right to meet the captain after languishing through the three miserable periods.
Following that game, the IceCaps became one of the American Hockey League's hottest teams, going 16-4.
“Definitely, definitely,” Jaffray said when asked if that Manchester game was a turning point in the season. “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.”
• January 20, Michael Hutchinson posts a shutout
Following that ugly loss to the Monarchs, the recently-recalled Michael Hutchinson started for St. John’s in the rematch against Manchester, and stopped 26 shots to post a shutout in his first start at Mile One Centre.
He went on to win another five straight games. And in February and March, when St. John’s won nine straight games, it was Hutchinson — who started the season with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign — in goal for eight of those starts.
A Boston Bruins prospect for a couple of years, Hutchinson was pushed out of a job by Svedberg and the emergence of young Malcolm Subban. Signed to a free agent contract last summer, Hutchinson was all but told he would be starting the year in the ECHL. Winnipeg wanted Pasquale and Jussi Olkinuora in St. John’s.
“A lot of players, when you have those meetings at the end of training camp, telling them that we’re going to send you down to Team A or Team B, the usual response is, ‘I’m going to go down there and work hard,’” IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge said.
“But whether they do it or not is a whole other story.
“Michael was real positive in our meeting. He didn’t just go down there and bide his time, waiting for something to take place in St. John’s. He forced the issue of getting himself back into the American league by the way he played.”
Hutchinson made such a statement in St. John’s that he was called up to the Jets towards the end of the season. He got his first NHL start, and very nearly beat the Minnesota Wild, allowing only a single goal in a 1-0 loss. Clearly impressed, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice gave Hutchinson another two games, and the sub delivered, beating the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames in the Jets’ final two games of the season.
Hutchinson played only 1,300-odd minutes in goal for the IceCaps this season, not enough to have his sparkling line — 17-5-1 record, 2.30 goals against average, .923 save percentage — counted amongst the official AHL goalie leaders.
• March 1, St. John’s beats Binghamton 1-0 for a series sweep
O’Dell scored his 15th goal on the year, and Hutchinson stopped 42 shots as the IceCaps blanked the Binghamton Senators.
What’s notable is the win capped a series sweep at home for the IceCaps, the first time St. John’s won back-to-back games at Mile One Centre since Dec. 10-11, when the Syracuse Crunch were in town.
The weekend after the Senators series, St. John’s posted another sweep yet again, beating the Bridgeport Sound Tigers 3-2 in regulation time and 3-2 in OT.
For the first time all season, the IceCaps proved to themselves and their fans they could finally win back-to-back games on Mile One ice.
• April 25, St. John’s beats Albany 2-1
On a warm, upstate New York Friday night, Ben Chiarot scored the biggest goal of his career, a slapshot from the point that eluded Devils’ goalie Keith Kinkaid with 24 seconds left in regulation time to give the IceCaps a 2-1 in their first playoff game.
Chiarot, an Ontario boy, scored a similar goal to give his team a championship win in the provincial major midget final years ago, but this was different.
This was the pros, and the playoffs, no less.
The IceCaps lost Game 2 in Albany by a 4-2 count, but took a pair of games when the series shifted to St. John’s to win the best-of-five, first-round affair and move on to play the Norfolk Admirals in Game 2.
There’s no telling where St. John’s would be if Chiarot hadn’t scored that big goal.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort