Through a seemingly never-ending crush of player movement and lengthy road trips, the St. John’s IceCaps continue their push through the American Hockey League this season.
A Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate has not reached the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2011. That season, their former affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, went to a conference final. Since then, five seasons without a post-season visit and a relocation to Newfoundland have followed.
This year will be the IceCaps’ final run in St. John’s before they move to Laval, Que. Playing as the Laval Rocket, that move will put them 30 minutes away from their NHL affiliate and provide easy NHL-AHL access between management, coaches, and players.
Of the seven NHL teams, Montreal has the longest playoff drought for its AHL affiliate. But this season could be the one that provides Canadiens prospects with the experience that comes with AHL playoff hockey.
The IceCaps hold third place in the North Division with a 22-20-5-1 record. The top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions qualify for post-season play, and the IceCaps have a three-point lead on the fourth-place Toronto Marlies going into play this weekend. St. John’s is five points behind the division-leading Syracuse Crunch.
A 3-6-1-0 slide has stalled their progress recently, but they shut out the AHL-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 4-0, on Wednesday. The victory was their second at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the past week. They wind down a six-game road trip this weekend with back-to-back dates with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who rank second in the AHL.
After they finish this road trip, which is 2-2-0-0 so far, the IceCaps return home for a six-game homestand against North Division opponents. They can put further distance between themselves and the Binghamton Senators – another team chasing fourth place in the division – when the teams play a two-game set starting next Tuesday.
Road swings of six and eight games are the norm for the far-flung IceCaps. A strong performance at Lehigh Valley would give the IceCaps their second consecutive successful trip as they went 5-2-2-1 on a 10-game journey that spanned five weeks between December and January.
Time on the road has not been the only challenge for head coach Sylvain Lefebvre and his players. Through Friday, the IceCaps have dealt with 79 player transactions through the first four months of the season. This week they lost forwards Daniel Carr and Michael McCarron on recall to Montreal, though they did gain forward Jacob De La Rose in the exchange.
The IceCaps’ blue line has also taken a beating lately. While Zach Redmond did make it through waivers from the Canadiens, No. 1 defenceman and key power-play man Mark Barberio was lost on waivers to the Colorado Avalanche. Jonathan Racine was sent to Syracuse in the trade that brought Nikita Nesterov to the Canadiens.
Rookie netminder Charlie Lindgren helped to steady the IceCaps in net after Zach Fucale endured a rocky beginning to the season and was assigned to the ECHL. Lindgren, who snagged his second shutout of the season Wednesday, has gone 16-12-3 with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in a tandem with veteran Yann Danis. That work earned Lindgren a trip to the AHL All-Star Classic in January.
Charlie Lindgren has helped stabilize the IceCaps’ goaltending situation (Graham Hughes/CP)
The IceCaps have needed Lindgren’s strong work as they have allowed the seventh-most shots per game at 31.4. Other issues remain as well as their 77.6 per cent mark on the penalty kill leaves them 28th in the AHL.
But a strong power play that ranks 10th in the league at 19.4 percent has helped the IceCaps overcome some of their difficulties in their own end of the ice. Veteran forward Chris Terry has one of the AHL’s most dangerous wrist shots, and he has 15 goals in 30 games. Third-year forward Charles Hudon, a fifth-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, continues his progression and has 14 goals in 28 games; he had 28 tallies in 67 games last season.
“When [Terry] wasn’t here, we missed him, especially in the goal-scoring department,” Lefebvre said. “He’s a good leader for us.”
Along with Hudon and Terry, forward Nikita Scherbak is the only other IceCap to have reached the 10-goal mark. Otherwise the IceCaps have had to rely on goals by committee to place 17th in the AHL with 2.77 goals per game. McCarron has seven goals in 30 games, and captain Max Friberg has contributed seven goals in 43 games. Rookie forward Daniel Audette, the only St. John’s forward to have skated in all 48 games so far, has eight goals.
Forwards Sven Andrighetto (eight goals in 20 games) and Carr (four goals in six games) are potential offensive weapons, but they have spent much of the season with Montreal.
Carr is another tough loss for the IceCaps.
“He is a kid who has character and work ethic that is off the charts,” Lefebvre said of Carr, a 25-year-old who has managed to log 55 NHL games in his first three pro seasons after being an undrafted player out of Union College.
The month should go a long way toward determining the IceCaps’ playoff chances. McCarron’s name has been floating around in trade rumours, and Lefebvre’s roster could be picked over if the Canadiens are active at the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 28. Alternatively, the Canadiens might be able to use draft picks as currency instead, bring in NHL veteran talent, and push some of their younger prospects back to the IceCaps.
In all, though, if the IceCaps can put together a strong run at home this month and survive the trade deadline, they could be in excellent shape. After this weekend, they will have only 10 more road games.
Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton) – The Condors’ six road wins are tied for the second-fewest in the AHL, but they will finally stay at home for a bit after a slog of nine of 11 games on road ice. They play five of their next seven at home, and will need a strong push to remain in contention in the Pacific Division. They are in a five-team fight for fourth place in the division going into their Saturday home date with the San Jose Barracuda. The losses of defenceman Jordan Oesterle and forward Anton Lander on recall to the Oilers could hurt.
Binghamton Senators (Ottawa) – Visits to Lehigh Valley have not been pleasant for the Senators. They were shut out 5-0 there on Wednesday and the Phantoms pounded them 7-2 on Jan. 25 as well. A difficult weekend awaits with a pair of visits from first-place teams. Syracuse visits Friday, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton arrives for a game Saturday. The Senators are six points behind Toronto for fourth place in the North Division.
Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg) – The Moose have slid well out of playoff contention going into a two-game road set with the Cleveland Monsters this weekend. They trail the fourth-place Iowa Wild in the Central Division by 13 points, though they do hold three games in hand. The Moose are currently mired in a three-game losing streak.
Stockton Heat (Calgary) – Count the Heat as another Pacific Division team that will be in a playoff fight for the final two months of the regular season. A 1-8-1-0 crash and a six-game losing streak (0-5-1-0) has threatened a once-promising season. The Stockton power play is in a 1-for-40 slide over the past three weeks. Top prospect Hunter Shinkaruk has gone 12 games without a goal, and veteran Linden Vey has not tallied one in his past 19 games. They wind down a stretch of five of six games on the road with a two-game road set this weekend. After that, they will play five of six games on the road as they try to push their way past the fourth-place Tucson Roadrunners.
Toronto Marlies (Toronto) – A 7-3-0-0 charge has put the Marlies back into a playoff spot in the North Division. A pair of home games against the Albany Devils will be an imposing challenge, but they have a calendar with six of seven games at Ricoh Coliseum after a road game Friday. Forward Byron Froese has recorded seven points in his past five games and has reached the 20-goal mark. Playmaking forward Seth Griffith has been a massive addition since being acquired on waivers from the Florida Panthers. Griffith, who enjoyed a 77-point season with the Providence Bruins last year, has 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in his first eight games with the Marlies and has at least a point in each of those eight outings.
Utica Comets (Vancouver) – The Comets host the Marlies Friday after a 4-2 road loss this past Tuesday. They trail the Marlies in the North Division by three points and hold a game in hand. The assignment of forward Brendan Gaunce from the Canucks could be a significant boost. The 2012 first-round pick had 17 goals in 46 AHL games last season for Utica.