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The St. John's IceCaps continue AHL playoff run as third round begins

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Aaron Gagnon is making up for lost time with the St. John's IceCaps.

The 26-year-old, who will lead the St. John's into the AHL Eastern Conference playoff starting Thursday in Norfolk, Va., was signed by the Winnipeg Jets as a free agent last year.

But coming off an ACL surgery, he says neither he nor the Jets saw the kind of performance both likely expected. The centre played in just seven Jets games with the bulk of his time spent with Winnipeg's AHL farm team.

So, nights like the two-goal performance that sealed the deal in Game 7 of the IceCaps' last series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are much appreciated.

With five goals and four assists in 11 games, Gagnon has been a solid performer for the team as they extend their playoff run and now face the league-leading Norfolk Admirals.

Gagnon is part of a core group of AHL veterans putting past Calder Cup playoff experience to good use ? players like Brock Trotter, Derek Meech, Garth Murray and Ray Sawada. Trotter has one more point than Gagnon to lead the playoff scoring race for St. John's.

Gagnon has been in the playoffs three times before: last year and the year before with the Texas Stars and in 2009 with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

"A lot of guys have made those runs before and understand what it's like in the playoffs and what it takes to win."

He gives full marks to Winnipeg Jets director of hockey operations Craig Heisinger for assembling the team last year when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and existing AHL affiliations changed.

"It's a great group Zinger has put together here. He wants a winning team and he's given us that opportunity with the group we have."

It's quite the stew.

It includes free-agent bits of the old Manitoba Moose (the farm team of the Vancouver Canucks) and the Chicago Wolves (the former farm team of the Thrashers and now the Canucks). Throw in a Jets draft pick or two and some new free agents like Gagnon.

Coach Keith McCambridge has seen the growth in their first season in Newfoundland.

"That game seven against Wilkes-Barre was obviously a building block," he said. "You can feel that in the players. They have confidence in each other. They're enjoying being in the playoffs and every day just building and getting better as a group."

Younger players in the Jets organization assigned to the IceCaps during the playoffs ??? like the team's top draft pick Mark Scheifele ??? are among the beneficiaries.

"You want your players to develop but you want your players to develop in the right atmosphere. . . They're getting that right now."

The playoffs have also been good for goaltender Eddie Pasquale. Although he only played about half the regular season in net, he has been the go-to guy for the playoffs and has blossomed.

"We have a lot of confidence with him in there and the way he's playing right now," says Gagnon.

Pasquale is just as quick to give credit to the help he's getting.

"We're playing well as a team and it shows," he says. "The guys have been playing rally well in front of me. The defence are blocking a lot of shots, clearing the second opportunities and limiting the scoring chances."

But they know the odds of facing Norfolk, which had three of the top-10 scorers in the AHL during the regular season ??? Cory Conacher, Trevor Smith and Tyler Johnson ??? and compiled a dominating 55-18-1-2 record.

The Admirals set a North American mark for professional hockey winning streaks April 15 with their 28th victory of the season.

The IceCaps finished fourth overall at 43-25-5-3, behind the Oklahoma City Barons and Toronto Marlies, who are facing off in the Western Conference playoff.

Murray says the kind of mistakes they made in the last two rounds are not going to be allowed if they want to beat the Admirals.

"I thought we had some turnovers and our mindset wasn't as a good in the situation as it should have been . . . Basically, every guy on their team can score. It's a team you don't want to give chances to."

On the upside, he says the IceCaps have shown they can rise to any occasion.

"I think we're all looking forward to the challenge we have here."

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