ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The past year has been very good to the playoff-bound St. John's IceCaps.
After missing the playoffs last year and finishing 14th in the American Hockey League's Eastern Conference, the IceCaps rebounded this season, taking fourth place in the East set up a post-season series against the fifth-seeded Albany Devils.
St. John's is preparing to kick off its second playoff run in its three-year history. Leading up to Game 1 on Friday in Albany, N.Y., IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge said it's key that the IceCaps stay focused.
"We have to make sure the sharpness is at a real good level here for Game 1, because it's a best-of-five series and things happen really quick," McCambridge said. " Our mentality going into the playoffs was 'we don't want to dial it down.'"
The IceCaps have not faced the Devils since March 27, 2013 (a 4-2 IceCaps win), which McCambridge said presents a unique situation for both teams.
"Compared to a team that you're familiar with, or at least you've seen a couple times during the season, it is a bit different," he said. "You can watch the team on video as much as you want, but until you see them on the ice (it is not the same)."
McCambridge said St. John's will rely on its deep roster for success.
"Our team is pretty balanced from one to four, in terms of forward lines, and one to six for defencemen," said McCambridge. "There is a lot of balance. The same thing can be said for our opposition. There isn't one defensive-pairing we lean on more than others. That is the way we have been structured all year."
The IceCaps team that will take the ice Friday looks quite different, and much improved, over last year's faltering lineup. St. John's management decided to shake up the roster in the off-season, and it paid off. The IceCaps' picked up second-leading goal scorer Jerome Samson (27 goals) and team MVP Andrew Gordon (57 points).
In net, St. John's added Michael Hutchinson. He started the year in the ECHL but climbed his way up the goaltending ladder before running with the chance to be an AHL starter when goalie Eddie Pasquale had season-ending surgery after playing 31 games. Through 24 games, Hutchinson posted a 2.30 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
Tyler Beskorowany was signed as a back-up goalie when Pasquale was ruled out. With Hutchinson's hot season, the NHL's Winnipeg Jets came calling, and Beskorowany had to play 12 games with a 2.20 GAA and a .932 save percentage while Hutchinson was in the big league to keep St. John's with home-ice advantage for the playoffs.
Adding to the team's success, several players from last year's team had career years; most notably John Albert (28 goals to lead all scorers) and Carl Klingberg (42 points). Captain Jason Jaffray led the team with 59 points, setting an IceCaps record. Last year's dynamic duo of Eric O'Dell (42 points in 42 games) and Kael Mouillierat (53 points) remained strong.
Rookies Adam Lowry and JC Lipon both came up big for the team when called upon, making up two-thirds of a threatening line.
On defence, Ben Chiarot led the team with a plus-29 (10 better than anyone else) to establish himself in the league. Rookie Brenden Kichton impressed offensively with a 48-point season.
All of this adds to the difficult roster decisions McCambridge will have to work through for the five-game opening series against the Devils. It's a good problem to have, according to the coach.
"The decisions are tough, but that's a big part of my job," McCambridge said. "You need everybody, to try to have success. That's what takes place in the playoffs, depending on what kind of look you're going for any certain night in your line-up, you're going to try to put the best possible scenario that gives your team the best chance at success. Those decisions are good decisions to have to make at this time of year."
For now, the coach is taking the series one game at a time. He has faith in his group of players.
"We have an excellent opponent in Albany and we have to make sure we're playing our game and making sure we're at a really good level," McCambridge said. "To get to this place, with our foot in the door for the playoffs, it has taken everybody in that dressing room."