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St. John’s and Syracuse open their first-round series tonight Posted by IceCaps on

Published on April 20, 2012
Brendan McCarthy, The Telegram

The St. John’s IceCaps have been routinely described as a team built for the playoffs.

Starting tonight, we’ll find out how solid that construction is.

The IceCaps begin their first-ever American Hockey League playoff series in Syracuse against the Crunch and because of their debut-season success, do so as a favourite to advance deep into the Calder Cup playdowns.

Now, post-season predictions are full of pitfalls — the first week of the Stanley Cup playoffs provide proof of that — and can be that much more of a fool’s game in the AHL, where there are even more factors (eg., the Stanley Cup participation of NHL affiliates) at play. But positive expectations for the IceCaps have their merits. St. John’s enters tonight’s Game 1 with perhaps its best on-paper lineup of the season, and this despite the absence of team captain Jason Jaffray.

That thesis will get an immediate test from a Syracuse team wearing the disguise of a seventh seed.

The long-held claim that the playoffs mark the start of a second season can be modified for the Crunch. This could be described as Day 1 of a third season for team that struggled for the first part of the 2011-12 campaign, but rebounded with a remarkable stretch-drive run that pushed Syracuse from a near-basement position into the playoffs.

The Crunch rally began after an early January move by the parent Anaheim Ducks, who brought in Trent Yawney and named him the associate head coach of the Crunch. Mark Holick, who had been the head coach, had his title change to associate coach.

So officially, there is no head coach for the Crunch, but really it’s a semantical thing. Yawney is the de facto man in charge and there is no doubt the move worked. Syracuse was 15-15-4 at the time of the change, then went 22-14-6 after Yawney was brought in. In fact, over the last 20 games of the season, the Crunch had the second-best record in the AHL (15-3-2), topped only by the history-making Norfolk Admirals, who closed out the schedule with 28 straight wins.

As for assessing the strength of the IceCaps, an easiest-to-read gauge might be found in the expected healthy scratches tonight, which would include rookie defenceman Zach Redmond, who played in the AHL All-Star Game in January and forward Eric O’Dell, who averaged two points a game (six goals, eight assists in seven games) in April.

Jaffray underwent spinal fusion surgery on his neck Thursday in Winnipeg, so his season is done. It’s a big loss, on and off the ice. Veterans Derek Meech and Marco Rosa, both just back playing after long-term stays on the injury list, will help fill the leadership void, but as St. John’s head coach Keith McCambridge pointed out, Jaffray’s was a unique presence on the team. He also might be considered, along with Spencer Machacek, as the IceCaps’ best two-way forward.

However, it also can be noted that in the 18 regular-season games missed by Jaffray before his injury (most of them during a recall to the Winnipeg Jets), the IceCaps fared pretty well, going 11-5-2. And with Rosa, Meech, Brock Trotter and Ray Sawada all returning to the lineup from injury, St. John’s may never have had a stronger roster at any point of the season.

The play of Trotter and Sawada bears special attention since they were acquired at the AHL trade deadline in large part because of their strong playoff performances in past seasons.

Game times tonight and Saturday are 7:30 p.m., with Brian Rogers’ broadcast beginning a half-hour earlier on This Is Newfoundland Labrador (CJYQ, 930AM) and online through Steele Communication and the team website. It was also announced Thursday that the games will be carried on Winnipeg’s TSN Radio 1290, the official radio station of the Jets.

Syracuse won the season series 2-1-1, outscoring St. John’s 19-15 in the process. As for stats that jump out at you, try these: The IceCaps had the third-best power-play success rate in the league (20.3 per cent), while the Crunch had the league’s worst penalty kill (77.5 per cent).

 

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