Jason King scored with 1:22 remaining to give the St. John’s IceCaps a 3-2 victory over the Syracuse Crunch in the opening game of the best-of-five conference quarterfinal series in the 2012 Calder Cup Playoffs.
King skated down the left wing, took a pass from Ben Maxwell and wristed a shot that snuck past the glove hand of Crunch goalie Iiro Tarkki, giving the IceCaps the late lead. With Tarkki on the bench, Syracuse pressed late but failed to get the equalizer.
With the win, the IceCaps take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
“Maxy (Ben Maxwell) made a great pass cross ice to me, and Gags (Aaron Gagnon) was driving to the net,” an elated King said following the game. “In the playoffs, you basically throw the pucks anywhere because you never know what could happen.
“I got a pretty good shot off. He got a piece of it but it went in. We didn’t get as many shots as we’re used to, first period for sure. They were getting shots on us but we weren’t getting our forecheck going the way we can. But we played a lot stronger in the third period.”
The opening period had a frantic pace befitting of playoff hockey.
Syracuse came out strong at the start, with heavy forechecking and great chances while the IceCaps looked a bit nervous and disorganized, as the Crunch jumped out with a 7-0 early lead in shots.
St. John’s had a couple of early power plays but couldn’t get on the board.
“It was a tight-checking game, a physical game form our opposition,” head coach Keith McCambridge stated after the win. “Every inch of the ice you have to fight for out there.
“Overall I thought Syracuse looked like a team that’s been playing for the last month with intensity – playoff-like hockey. Our game has not had as much intensity to it. It took us to the third period to get us into that mindset you need to win playoff hockey.”
Eddie Pasquale was outstanding in the St. John’s goal. In his first AHL playoff start, Pasquale was the IceCaps’ best player, turning aside all Syracuse opportunities in the first, including a couple off the stick of the dangerous Kyle Palmieri.
Veteran Derek Meech got an early birthday present – he turns 28 Saturday – when he scored the opening goal of the game at 3:05 of the second. Brock Trotter controlled the puck behind the goal line and waited for the right time to feed Meech.
With a cluster of players in front of the net, Trotter sent the puck back to Meech on the blueline and the Winnipeg native fired a laser that Taarki couldn’t control, putting the IceCaps up 1-0.
Shortly after Meech’s goal, IceCaps forward John Albert went hard into the end boards as he forechecked. Albert went to the bench in some discomfort, but didn’t miss a shift.
Kyle Palmieri tied the score for Syracuse at 10:22 on a power play. Just seven seconds after Kevin Clark was sent to the box for tripping, Palmieri – one of the Crunch’s top offensive weapons – fired a shot from his off wing to put the home team on the board.
Despite the low score, the first two periods featured tremendous action on both ends, with a number of big bodychecks. Arturs Kulda laid out Patrick Maroon with the best hit of the night, at the IceCaps blueline, as Maroon dumped the puck into the zone.
Kulda later struggled to get to the bench after missing a check along the blueline and hitting the boards hard. He did not return to the game.
As the IceCaps power play ended, Dan Sexton gathered up a loose puck in the neutral zone and fed Mark Bell streaking down the left wing, who put the home team up 2-1 with 10 minutes remaining in the third.
Less than two minutes after Bell’s goal, Aaron Gagnon tied the score at two, depositing a big rebound into the net behind Taarki, setting the stage for King’s heroics.
“In the playoffs you need your goalie to make big saves for you. I thought we had that,” McCambridge said. “It’s the back and forth of playoff hockey that you expect.
“It’s one game, one win. That was our focus. Now we’re focused on getting (Saturday’s) win.”
Game 2 will take place Saturday at the War Memorial at 7:30 ET (AHL Live).