IceCaps set to open Eastern Conference final

- May 23rd, 2014

A well-rested St. John’s IceCaps team (waiting for their next opponent since eliminating the Norfolk Admirals in Game 6 last Friday) is ready to resume their quest for the Calder Cup on Saturday night at Mile Once Centre against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who survived a nail-biting seventh game with the Providence Bruins on Wednesday.

This week I’ve spoken to IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge, 2013 Winnipeg Jets’ first rounder Josh Morrissey and goalie Michael Hutchinson and I’ll share a few leftovers from those conversations here but the immediate goal of the post is to provide a bit of background for the match-up itself, which offers up a number of interesting storylines.

The primary affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets is up against the top farm club of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The WBS Pens’ roster includes a couple of players with ties to the Jets, including Spencer Machacek, whose career path has flattened out a bit since his productive late-season call-up in 2011-12.

Machacek has only two assists in seven playoff games after putting up 10 goals and 14 points in 22 games with the AHL Penguins after a trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also had nine goals and 19 points in 34 games with the Springfield Falcons before the move was made.

The other loose connection to the Jets is Pens’ goalie Peter Mannino, who played a period of relief against the Florida Panthers back in November of 2011 (stopping all four shots he faced) during a recall but he returned to the AHL shortly after and saw Eddie Pasquale steal the No. 1 job before he was eventually moved to the Portland Pirates.

Mannino had another tumultuous season, refusing an ECHL assignment before eventually coming around to report.

By season’s end, he had moved into a starting role with Wilkes-Barre and during these playoffs, he’s 7-4 with a 2.51 goals against average and .901 save percentage.

Given how well Hutchinson has been playing, it looks like the IceCaps should have a slight edge in goal but this figures to be a tightly-contested series.

When the IceCaps were bounced from the Eastern Conference final two years ago by the Norfolk Admirals, they didn’t have home-ice advantage and were up against a powerhouse that ended up winning the Calder Cup (with Dustin Tokarski in goal).

This IceCaps team looks deeper than the one from the 2012 playoffs, but we’re about to find out.

Hutchinson was impressive for the Jets during his late-season recall, going 2-1 in three starts with a 1.64 goals against average and .943 save percentage.

Make no mistake, his NHL experience gave Hutchinson a big boost as he returned to The Rock.

“Just the confidence you gain from playing those three games and having success in those games went a long way coming into the playoffs and knowing that the intensity ramps up. But since I had success in the NHL, I know that I can raise my game in the playoffs and have success in the playoffs. That little bit of confidence definitely went a long way,” he said

Yes, the sample size at the NHL-level is extremely small but coupled with what he’s accomplished this season in working his way up from the ECHL to be a stalwart at the AHL-level, Hutchinson figures to at least be involved in the competition for the Jets’ backup job this fall.

For the time being, Hutchinson is simply soaking up the experience of reaching the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s awesome. Getting a little taste of it last year was great,” said Hutchinson, who had two relief appearances with the P-Bruins last spring. “It was kind of hard sitting on the bench last year and watching the team play. This year, I’m just really enjoying being a part of it, even more so. It’s always nice having success in the playoffs. Right now, I’m just enjoying every second of it. The team is playing great in front of me too. It’s just been a really good run so far.”

When asked what it was like to be eight wins away from a championship, Hutchinson stepped into the one-day-at-a-time territory that most players put forth at this time of year but did offer a glimpse of what he was feeling.

“It’s definitely a really cool experience. There’s only four teams in the league left right now. You’re happy that you’ve made it this far. But the end goal is to win the Calder Cup. No team is going to roll over and just let you walk through a series. We’re going to have a battle with them and we can’t look past that,” he said.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Hutchinson’s strong play is that it’s the first extended playoff run since he was a member of the London Knights on the Ontario Hockey League in 2010, when he appeared in 12 post-season games.

“There’s a lot of stuff you learn over the years. That was quite a few years ago. The mental side of my game has come a long way since then,” said Hutchinson. “The best advice I got before these playoffs was from (Jets goalie coach) Wade Flaherty. He said you have to play the same game you’ve been playing all season. All of the players ramp up the intensity and bring a bit more but as a goalie, you have to keep doing the same thing. You can’t make saves before the puck gets there or psyche yourself out. I found myself in junior, I was getting a little too pumped up for games, too antsy and that’s when you start making mistakes. If you do make a mistake, you can’t dwell on it. Just go in with the same approach that you did during the whole season. If you had success in the season and you come in with the same mindset, it should work.”

But how has Hutchinson been able to avoid a potential letdown in returning to the AHL for the playoffs?

“Just working hard every day has helped a lot. It doesn’t matter which level you’re at, if you’re working hard you can get adjusted to the speed of that league,” said Hutchinson. “I’ve focused on having good habits every day, on being competitive and just trying to help the team win games. The rest of the stuff takes care of itself when you can make the saves and help your team, keep them in the game or just make sure you’re there to help back them up.”

Hutchinson has certainly been doing a good job of that, no doubt about it.

“He’s very competitive, he’s very prepared,” said Morrissey. “I room with him on the road and get a chance to see him away from the rink. He’s a consummate pro. I’ve been able to learn a lot from him and he’s taught me a lot, just from watching him. He’s bringing everything he has every night and he’s going out there and preparing properly. As a goalie, he’s confident and calm. But he’s competitive. Not only does he work hard, he’s always on the ice for practice early, he’s always taking optional skates and stuff like that.”

If you’re looking for a statistical update on the IceCaps, here you go:

http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/csl_po.php?tid=6443

As for the Penguins, it’s an interesting roster composition, with a nice blend of experienced talent with some top prospects — which is very similar to how the IceCaps were constructed.

One of their clutch performers in the post-season has been left-winger Anton Zlobin, who has five goals (three of which were game-winners), while college free agent signing Conor Sheary had five goals and eight points in seven games against the Bruins last round and has nine points overall.

Some of those names with NHL experience include Chuck Kobasew, team captain Tom Kostopoulos, Harry Zolnierczyk, Jayson Megna and Brian Gibbons (among others) up front and Brendan Mikkelson on the back end.

As I mentioned in this week’s In the Hangar off-season Jets’ column, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets were taking a close look at Gibbons, who has blazing speed and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Gibbons has the versatility to play centre or the wing and might be able to provide an upgrade to the Jets’ bottom six, which appears to be a priority for Kevin Cheveldayoff this off-season.

The Penguins’ defence corps is solid, with three very good prospects in Simon Depres, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington, of Canadian world junior fame and a former captain of the London Knights team that took part in the Memorial Cup last spring in Saskatoon.

That means the IceCaps’ forwards are going to have to work hard to generate offensive opportunities (the Penguins gave up the fewest shots on goal in the AHL this season).

The IceCaps have been getting a lot of production from their blue-liners as well, with six goals and 36 points combined.

After sitting out Game 6 against the Norfolk Admirals, IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury but I would expect him to be ready for Game 1. A serious neck injury prevented Jaffray from appearing in the 2012 playoffs and he’s hungry to win a Calder Cup after reaching the final in 2009 before losing in six games to the Hershey Bears.

The Penguins could get skilled centre Andrew Ebbett back at some point, but he’s been limited to four games (two goals, six points) in the playoffs because of an injury.

For those of you looking to get a good WBS Penguins perspective on Twitter, be sure to check out my old friend Jonathan Bombulie, who has been covering the team for the Citizens’ Voice since 1999, the year of their inception. Find him here:

Games 1 and 2 in Newfoundland start at 5 p.m. CT. Below is the complete schedule:

Game 1: May 24, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 pm. CT
Game 2: May 25, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 p.m. CT
Game 3: May 28, IceCaps at Penguins, 6:05 p.m. CT
Game 4: May 29, IceCaps at Penguins, 6:05 p.m.  CT
Game 5: May 31, IceCaps at Penguins, 6:05 p.m. CT *
Game 6: June 3, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 p.m. CT *
Game 7: June 4, Penguins at IceCaps, 5 p.m. CT, *
* if necessary

Categories: Hockey

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