It was a night to remember in St. John's: the IceCaps first home playoff game and their first home playoff win. Adding to the excitement was the the first IceCaps appearance of top Winnipeg Jets-prospect Mark Scheifele.
The energy was palpable in Mile One Centre Wednesday night as the Caps hosted the Syracuse Crunch in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. The St. John's faithful, normally a quiet and attentive crowd, brought some big-league energy to the festivities and it helped make the difference on the ice. The IceCaps played with a level of fire and urgency that had waned down the stretch at home, and were rewarded with a 5-1 victory that put them one win away from clinching the best-of-five series.
Multiple players have put their stamp on the series so far for both sides. For the IceCaps, Eddie Pasquale has put in three straight benchmark performances in net, resulting in a .941 save percentage. In Game 3 on Wednesday, he posted a season-high 40 save game, in what was arguably the biggest game of his pro career, thus far.
IceCaps defenseman Derek Meech again looked like the best player on the ice, showing NHL-caliber patience, decision-making, and positional-play. On top of his sound defensive effort, which included breaking down several two-on-one rushes, Meech also picked up an assist and potted the game-winner on a sneaky backhand shot from the slot.
Aaron Gagnon, who shares the team lead in playoff points with Meech at 4, played a solid two-game, earning an assist and finishing +2. His +5 rating paces the Caps, as does his 3 goals.
Special mention needs to go out to the defensive pairing of Brett Festerling and Arturs Kulda, who had the tall-order of shutting down the Crunch's top scorers, Patrick Maroon and Kyle Palmieri. By keeping them off the scoresheet and holding them to a combined -2, Kulda and Festerling negated the largest threat against their team.
Speaking of the Crunch, speedy right wing Dan Sexton has been dangerous in every game, using his wheels to break out of the defensive zone and create multiple scoring chances for himself and linemate Mark Bell. Sexton leads Syracuse with 4 points and boasts a +2 rating for his efforts.
As for young Scheifele, his first game in a IceCaps sweater was impressive overall. Head Coach Keith McCambridge eased him into the game, not icing his line until well into the first period. Unfortunately, Sexton intercepted a pass and sniped his team`s only goal seconds later, leaving the first-rounder with a -1 rating on the night.
Despite his stat-line, Scheifele played a solid game. When he got some offensive minutes later in the game, the 19-year-old center showed some remarkable offensive instincts, as well as a high panic-threshold for a player with limited exposure to the pro game. Scheifele displayed an enviable array of tools, such as a quick release on his shot, a big frame that was hard to knock of the puck, and a long reach that he used to tie-up opponents and strip them of the puck down low.
Heading into Game 4 on Friday night, the IceCaps are poised to finish off their opponents, but they shouldn't expect to have an easy time of it. The Crunch are a proud group with veterans at every position and they know what kind of attack they can bring to the ice. There`s no word yet as to whether top-center Peter Holland will return, but if so, expect better performances from Palmieri and Maroon, as they form one of the best lines in the AHL.