Lethbridge: IceCaps and Admirals make for exciting AHL Conference Final

By: Stephen Lethbridge
@StephenLeth

St. John’s, Nfld. – In just its first season in the American Hockey League, the St. John’s IceCaps – the league’s youngest franchise – have made it to the Eastern conference final, following a series win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins May 12 at the Mile One Centre in St. John’s.

(MR_53/Flickr)

In addition to the excitement of a pro hockey team returning to Newfoundland, the IceCaps’ first season has proven to be nothing but a rousing success. The farm team of another new Canadian hockey franchise, the Winnipeg Jets, finished the 2011-12 regular season second in the Eastern Conference, and fifth overall in the entire league. Despite their solid regular season play, there were still some questions heading into the AHL playoffs, but the team has evidently come up with the right answers and so far thrived under the postseason pressures.

The first area in which the team is playing well is in net. Throughout much of the regular season, the goaltender’s position was a revolving door for the IceCaps. David Aebischer, seeing his first action in North America since the 2007-08 season, received playing time alongside Eddie Pasquale and Peter Mannino. Pasquale and Aebischer got the lion’s share of starts, but neither posted ideal numbers.

This has not been the case in the playoffs, however. Eddie Pasquale has been the guy for coach Keith McCambridge, and has looked solid so far. He’s 7-4 through two rounds, with a .927 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average. He hasn’t been unbeatable, but much stronger than he looked in the regular season.

Considering Pasquale has emerged as the clear-cut starter for the IceCaps down the stretch, he’s looking like a solid candidate to be the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie next season, if not be called up by the Winnipeg Jets to replace Chris Mason as his contract expires.

The team had a harder road in the second round vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, giving up some late leads and failing to commit to a full 60 minutes – Game Six being a prime example. Moreover, Pasquale’s stats did take a hit, but he has played well for the most part.

While goaltending has certainly been a storyline, perhaps the biggest of all has been the IceCaps’ offensive output. Early in the season, it was not strange to see the team notch 40 or more shots in a game. They were top five in the AHL in goals scored. Also, the team scored five or more goals in 12 games this regular season.

Swedish forward Carl Klingberg lead the charge for the IceCaps to start the season, but as the it progressed, various players found their grooves and contributed significantly to the team’s offense. Spencer Machacek, defensemen Paul Postma and Jason DeSantis, captain Jason Jaffray and Newfoundland native Jason King, who was Mr. Clutch all season long in his return to the North American hockey scene, all played crucial roles on the team.

While these players are still scoring, we’ve seen others break out offensively in the postseason. Brock Trotter, who joined the team in March after appearing in just two regular season games due to injury, has been the stand out with five goals and five assists through 11 games. Aaron Gagnon has also been good for the team, with nine points so far. Another player of note is defensive stalwart Derek Meech, who is currently tied for third in team scoring with eight points, including an overtime game-winner to secure the team’s first round victory over the Syracuse Crunch. This depth of scoring has been carried over from the regular season, as 11 different IceCaps skaters notched over 30 points.

St. John’s scoring and goaltending will have to be at their best in the Conference Final, as they prepare to take on the first seed Norfolk Admirals, who set a new pro hockey record in North America with 28 straight wins to finish their regular season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate hadn’t lost since Superbowl Sunday going into the first round of the playoffs, when the Manchester Monarchs managed to steal one game. In the regular season, the team was an offensive juggernaut, leading the AHL with 273 goals scored. Not only that, but their defensive play and goaltending was stellar, allowing just 180 goals all season, good for third in the league.

The IceCaps went 1-3 this season vs. the Admirals, splitting a set at Mile One Centre in St. John’s in November, before losing two straight in Norfolk in late March. It is worth noting, however, that those two losses in March were by scores of 2-0 and 2-1, some of the closest games of the Admirals improbable winning streak.

The tough road to the Calder Cup will certainly continue for the St. John’s IceCaps in the Conference Final. They will be hard-pressed to contain Norfolk’s potent core of forwards, and their own offense will have to be firing on all cylinders if they are to make it through to the league final.

St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, previously had an AHL affiliate, the St. John’s Maple Leafs. In their first year of existence, they gained a berth to the Calder Cup final, but came to within one game of winning it versus the Adirondack Red Wings. We will have to wait to see if history will repeat itself, or if the current St. John’s team has what it takes to win it all.

While it isn’t a David vs. Goliath-esque battle, it should be a high-scoring, fast, fun-to-watch series.

The puck drops Thursday, May 17 in Norfolk for Game 1 of the series.

*Editor’s Note: This article is Part 1 of 2 AHL Conference Final previews at CoincidentalMinors.com. The second part, with contributing writer and Marlies expert @APetrielli, focuses on the Western Conference. Click here to read Part 2.

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