Not just 2011-2012 Calder Cup Champions, but arguably the greatest single-season team in AHL history.
Dustin Tokarski allowed just 1 goal on 19 shots for the clinching victory. As with most of the last 2 rounds, he didn't have a huge volume of work, but he made saves when called upon. Some felt he might've received a minor snub by not getting MVP after going 12-2-0 with 3 shutouts, a 1.46 GAA, and a .944 save percentage. I think they got it right making Alexandre Picard the playoff MVP, but it should be noted that Tokarski's numbers in the Eastern Conference Finals and Calder Cup Finals are surreal. 8-0, 3 shutouts, and he only allowed 6 goals in those 8 games. The guy came to the Lightning with a reputation of being a big timer when the game's get important. He lived up to his reputation in this postseason.
NOR Panik, (5) (Johnson, Conacher), 6:17
TOR Zigomanis, (4) (Colborne, Lashoff), 19:43 (PP)
NOR Kostka, (5) (Palat, Conacher), 4:26
NOR Johnson, (5) (Killorn, Aulie), 16:45
NOR Kostka, (6) (Conacher, Johnson), 0:44 (PP)
NOR Johnson, (6) (Cote, Conacher), 12:35 (EN)
NOR Labrie, (5) (Ouellet, Smith), 13:33
Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson, and Mike Kostka were the game's three stars, but you couldn't swing a stick without hitting a hero in that Admirals lineup tonight. They really did save one of their best all-around games for last in taking this Game Four, championship clinching victory.
Richard Panik got it off to a good start with the opening goal. The Panik attack used his speed to undress Simon Gysbers wide and got a bounce off a defender on a centering feed to Johnson for the opening marker, which really helped take Toronto's crown out of the game. Panik ended up getting kicked out of the game late in the First Period on what I felt was a dubious call. Yes, he swung his elbow blindly trying to create space for himself making a play near his own blueline, but it looked like his shoulder was what actually made contact with the Marlies' player's chin. Nonetheless, I think you could make a strong argument that Panik was Norfolk's best player in Game Three and the First Period of Game Four. He's dynamic, and you have to be excited about the player he's becoming.
A 5-on-3 goal kept Toronto alive, barely, but Norfolk really turned it up in the Second Period. Ondrej Palat showed nice vision on a beautiful feed from out of the corner to the left point to Mike Kostka for the eventual game winner. Palat's just a great stick handler and passer, and he's gone from a longshot signed for AHL depth to becoming a legitimate NHL prospect. I'm so impressed with Ondrej Palat and what he did from about the midpoint of the regular season on. And Kostka ended up being the hero in the Toronto series, as a whole, but that goal was illustrative of one of the aspects of Norfolk's game that makes them so good. Their points are so mobile and they use them so well 5-on-5 in the offensive zone. I'd really love to see a day where the Lightning had the personnel to play this style.
Johnson got the big goal last in the Second Period off a magnificent play by Alex Killorn. Killorn made a nice little stickhandling move to get through a defender in the high right wing of the zone and fired a very sharp pass to Johnson in the left wing circle. Johnson was stopped on a quick shot but banked the rebound off Scrivens and in from below the goal line. Nice job to stick with it by Johnson, and a magnificent play by Killorn.
From there, Norfolk pretty much ended it with a 5-on-3 goal of their own early in the Third Period. Cory Conacher had his 3rd of 4 assists in the game pushing a puck back to the right point while he was down on the ice for another Mike Kostka bullet, and it was about over. Conacher sent Johnson off to a 1-on-1 skate race for an empty netter with about 7 1/2 minutes left to go, and Johnson's not going to lose that race, and Pierre-Cedric Labrie, my guy, buried one shortly thereafter past Scrivens to complete the rout.
The victory should place the Norfolk Admirals near the top in terms of the greatest single-season teams in AHL history. Between the regular season and playoffs they won 70 of the 94 games they played including the final 28 games of their regular season and their final 10 games of the postseason, which included sweeps of the Eastern Conference Finals and Calder Cup Finals. They had the AHL's best offensive production in the regular season and the third best defense, and in the postseason they allowed a league best 1.67 goals a game.
The gold standard in the AHL, entering this year, was considered to be Hershey's team from two years ago that had a stunning +144 regular season goal differential and set the AHL record for regular season wins. That Hershey team, like the Admirals, was tops in the regular season in offense and third in defense. Norfolk only had a modest +93 regular season goal differential, mind you, but Hershey's team lost 5 games in the playoffs, whereas Norfolk only lost 3. Where I think the Admirals can make the argument for being the best AHL team of all-time is with their 28 game regular season winning streak record and their 10 game win streak to end the postseason, including sweeping the Eastern Conference and Calder Cup Finals. Note that they never trailed a series in the playoffs and they never came close to facing elimination. The outcome was never really in doubt, for anyone who watched this team and knew what they were capable of. Only a rash of a half dozen injuries and/or a world class goaltending hot streak was going to stop them, and even Pasquale and Scrivens' great goaltending in the last 2 series couldn't stop the inevitable. Norfolk's final loss of the regular season was on the day of the Super Bowl against the Springfield Falcons. From that point on, they posted a mind-blowing 43-3 record, between the regular season and playoffs. If the .745 overall winning percentage didn't do it for you, maybe the .935 winning percentage in the last 46 does.
And, if anybody's thinking this is a team built with high draft picks, they're wrong. Picard was the only first round selection on the team, and Panik and Scott Jackson, who returned tonight after missing 2-1/2 weeks from a puck to the head, were the only second rounders, and Jackson wasn't signed and had to latch on with the Lightning as a free agent. Beyond that, the team you saw on the ice today included 5 guys who were taken in rounds 5 through 9 and 7 guys who were undrafted free agents. That all underlines the job that the Lightning organization (past and present) did in identifying this talent, especially current Lightning Assistant GM and Admirals GM Julien BriseBois, and the unbelievable job The Rookie Whisperer, Jon Cooper, did this season. Cooper, despite this being only his 2nd season in professional hockey, may already lay claim on his resume to one of the greatest coaching jobs in AHL history. My only hope is that some other organization doesn't come poach him from the Lightning.
Top to bottom, it was just a special time these past 4-5 months during the streak and the playoffs, and a special team that came together from humble beginnings to achieve pure greatness. I was going to write a special post to the site after the Admirals broke the win streak record, but I didn't want to put a point on it until the streak was over. Problem is, this team just wouldn't lose, and by the time it got to the playoffs it felt inappropriate to try to ground anything in historic perspective with so much still left to be done. That's the amazing quality of this team. They're winners, and they're winners in whatever style of hockey you want to play. The first half of their streak they were blowing teams out with their speed and their skill, and the second half of the streak they were winning close games and many times having to play from 1-2 goals behind. Entering the playoffs teams might've thought they were soft. Nope. Like I said after Game One, this team has jam in every flavor. I giggled on the inside when Brian Burke complained today he didn't like how Scrivens was getting bumped and run by the Admirals going so hard to the net. They bullied an organization run by a guy who believes in bully hockey. Other teams may have believed that a team with that much offense couldn't win tight checking games. But, look back on the last two series and you'll see the close games where Norfolk triumphed. Game Two against St. John's was a 3-1 win with an empty netter. Game Three a 1-0 overtime victory. Game One against Toronto, again, a 3-1 win with an empty netter. Game Three, another 1-0 overtime win. Whatever style you wanted to play, the Admirals would beat you. Physical? They'd bloody your nose. Track meet? They'd skate you right out of the barn. Clutch and grab tight checking? They'd beat you 1-0, 2-1. No problem. I've never seen a team like this in my life, and I'm fairly certain I never will again, and it was a privilege for me to get to write about them all year long.
They certainly finished the drill.
I will, hopefully, try to write a separate story about how this fits into the context of the Lightning development system's emergence from the painful first steps in Springfield in 2004-2005 during the strike season, pretty soon. For now, though, as you can imagine it's something pretty incredible for me to have had the opportunity to witness things going from that point 8 seasons ago to being at the top of the world with championships at both the AHL and ECHL level and a solid claim to all-time greatness at the highest level of minor league hockey. The journey makes reaching the destination all the more sweeter, and the future looks so incredibly bright.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Stat of the night: the winner of Game One in the Calder Cup Finals has gone on to hoist the championship 74.9% of the time.
Norfolk Leads the Series 1-0
Dustin Tokarski allowed 1 goal on 24 shots for the victory. He came within an eyelash of setting an all-time AHL playoff shutout streak record. Norfolk's playing a championship brand of defense right now. They're not allowing a lot of chances and the few times they do, they're getting the timely save from Tic. If they keep playing defense like they have since they tightened up at the end of the Connecticut series in the Eastern Semis, it's hard to imagine they can lose a 7 game series.
NOR Conacher, (2) (Johnson, Oberg), 12:21
NOR Johnson, (4) (Barberio, Conacher), 10:03 (PP)
TOR Ashton, (1) (Scott, Gardiner), 3:57
NOR Segal, (4) (Smith, Gudas), 19:31 (EN)
Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson were the game's first and second stars. When the chips are down, you need your best players to be your best players. Conacher was the best player in the league the first half of the AHL regular season and TJ was probably the best in the second half, but neither has really had a dominant playoffs. Tonight they stepped up at the time when they were needed to put their club over the top.
Looking deeper into the box score there's some interesting nuggets to consider going into Game Two. Norfolk outshot Toronto a very impressive 42-24 in the game, as Toronto struggled with the speed and tenacity that have really been the cornerstones of Norfolk's game this year. But, Norfolk allowed Toronto 10 power plays to the Admirals' 5, which is unacceptable. Then again, that kind of puts the quality of Norfolk's night defensively into even better perspective. If you allow an 10-5 PP disparity and still outshoot your opponents 42-24, that says something.
I suspect Norfolk wanted to set a tone with the machismo tonight against a Brian Burke led Toronto organization that prides themselves on being able to bloody their opponents' noses. Norfolk does have some guys on their roster who are speedsters who are on the slight side, and an uninformed scouting report might say to try to push them around. This Admirals team has relished the physical challenge all year, though. They don't care if the Marlies have Don Cherry's endorsement, and while they do have a few guys who are small speedsters with skill, it would be incredibly foolish to think they can't handle their business when called upon. They've got jam in every flavor. Norfolk probably got a little overzealous in that respect, though, and I suspect that, with the point proven, Jon Cooper's going to reel his boys in. Tomorrow night's going to be a huge game for Norfolk, because you want to head into Toronto with the luxury of really only having to win 1 of 3 in Toronto before, if necessary, going back to Scope for Game Six and Game Seven. They can make their lives a lot easier and go a long way toward finishing the drill, overall, by focusing in and getting this big Game Two "W" tomorrow night.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Norfolk passes the midpoint on their way up the mountain, but there's still a lot of climbing left to do.
Norfolk Leads the Series 1-0
Dustin Tokarski stopped 29 of 30 for the win as Jon Cooper again flexes his superior coaching instincts.
NOR Kostka, (2) (Oberg, Smith), 18:55 (PP)
NOR Ouellet, (1) (Johnson, Barberio), 3:08 (PP)
NOR Kostka, (3) (Devos, Angelidis), 11:04
NOR Cote, (1) (Smith, Labrie), 13:42
NOR Palat, (4) (Johnson, Conacher), 1:28
STJ Redmond, (1) (Trotter, Postma), 2:11 (PP)
NOR Aulie, (1) (Palat, Conacher), 7:21
Alex Killorn was a scratch for, presumably, health reasons.
Norfolk's players can enjoy this win for another 2-3 hours tonight, and then they need to erase it from the memory banks. The danger after a win like this is complacency. Norfolk's good, but they're not 5 goals better than the IceCaps on any given night, and they have to be ready to go Saturday night in Game Two. The IceCaps won't lick their wounds long, because they've got the shot for redemption on Saturday and they can be right in the spot they want to be with a 1-1 split, so Norfolk can't go into that game overconfident. They have to bring their lunch buckets and make sure they give themselves the best chance to get that 2-0 lead before heading north.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Norfolk withstands Connecticut's best shot.
Norfolk Leads the Series 2-1
Dustin Tokarski allowed 3 goals on 30 shots for the victory. The stat line is ho hum, but he gave the Admirals exactly what they needed. Under siege for much of the first half of the Second Period, Tokarski kept the game close and allowed the Admirals to get their legs underneath them and get a critical victory.
CT Wellman, (2) , 5:20 (PP)
NOR Palat, (2) , 8:01 (SH)
CT Deveaux, (2) (Hrivik, Newbury), 17:12
NOR Killorn, (3) (Kostka, Picard), 11:31 (PP)
NOR Smith, (3) (Barberio, Conacher), 12:16
NOR Angelidis, (1) (Ouellet, Gudas), 17:40
CT Wellman, (3) (Newbury, Erixon), 1:06 (PP)
Ondrej Palat and Tokarski were the game's first and third stars. Color me pleasantly surprised with Palat overall this season. He's better along the wall and defensively than advertised. Heck, he even kills penalties. Between Palat and fellow Eastern European Richard Panik, it's really no contest which of the two has played better so far in the playoffs.
Speaking of those from the Czech-or-Slovakia region, Radko Gudas played a ton in the final frame protecting the one goal lead, and played really well.
Alex Killorn is the truth.
Cory Conacher is... touched? Is that the diplomatic way to put it? Heavyweight Andre Deveaux decided to rough up Conacher after the whistle on a play in the Second Period, and Conacher actually chased after him like he wanted to fight him. Cory, brother, you're strong pound-for-pound, but Deveaux eats meals that weigh more than you do. Stick to whipping his behind on the scoreboard, where it really hurts.
Norfolk won tonight despite being outshot for the first time in these playoffs. They'll move on to Game Four tomorrow night with the chance to really put Connecticut behind the eight ball. Yes, they got "home ice" back tonight, but bear in mind Game Five is really a neutral site game in Bridgeport due to a scheduling conflict. The Whale can't afford to lose Game Four. Sweep the leg, Admirals. Sweep the leg.
In the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, St. John's swept the weekend and now hold a 3-1 series lead over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Another reason for Norfolk to get on the gas tomorrow is that they don't want the IceCaps to have a rest advantage heading into any potential Eastern Conference Finals series.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
This season Bolt Prospects introduced our Prospect of the Week award, an honor (virtually) given to one Tampa Bay Lightning prospect for their on-ice contributions.
We wanted to highlight prospects throughout the year to help fans get better acquainted with the next round of Lightning stars while recognizing the prospectâ€™s achievement on the ice.
This weekâ€™s BP Prospect of the Week award goes to â€¦ Cory Conacher, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL).
Controversially, Norfolk gets to Marc Bureau (#28) to conclude the regular season.
Jaroslav Janus allowed 2 goals on 19 shots for his 15th consecutive victory. He'll finish the season tied for 8th in the AHL in victories with 23 and tops on the Admrials with a .914 save percentage, one point better than tandem-mate Dustin Tokarski and his .913 mark. Tokarski finishes with a league leading 32 wins, for his part. It's never a bad thing when you have 2 goalies in the top-10 in the league in wins.
ADK Holmstrom, (15) (Manning, Gustafsson), 2:19 (PP)
NOR Segal, (18) (Smith, Conacher), 15:30
NOR Conacher, (37) (Segal), 17:27
ADK Akeson, (14) (Testwuide), 12:15
NOR Conacher, (38) (Segal, Smith), 18:00
NOR Conacher, (39) (Segal), 19:58 (EN)
Why controversial, you ask? With 14 seconds remaining in the final frame, Adirondack had a goal waved off for goaltender interference after defenseman Keith Aulie got beat wide by the Phantoms' Mike Testuwide, a sin he committed far too often earlier this season with the Lightning. Norfolk dodged a big bullet with the wave off to secure their 28th consecutive victory, much to the chagrin of the Phantoms and their fans. In fairness to Aulie, Adirondack would have never been that close were it not for a horrendous turnover by Tyler Johnson that allowed Adirondack to score their second goal. Heading into the playoffs, everyone's got to tighten up that much more.
There's one more bit of regular season business to wrap up now. With Cory Conacher scoring his first professional hat trick, he has moved out to a 2 goal lead over Texas' Matt Fraser for the Willie Marshall Award, the AHL's equivalent of the Rocket Richard Trophy. Conacher entered the day 1 goal behind Fraser, and was actually benched again today, momentarily, after taking a delay-of-game minor. Once he got back on the ice again, though, he and linemate Brandon Segal made sure that their efforts in the Admirals' final regular season game would leave some Exit Wounds. As of this posting, Fraser has just about 15 minutes left to try and score 2 goals to get back even with Conacher, who picked just the right time to get back on track offensively.
Richard Panik failed to score a goal in his final 7 games of the regular season, leaving him 1 shy of a 20 goal rookie campaign. It's just about the only goal, personal or team, that someone on the Admirals didn't manage to accomplish, although Conacher's hat trick did leave him 1 shy of 40, in retrospect.
Norfolk now draws the Manchester Monarchs in the first round of the playoffs, beginning next Friday with Game One. Because of a scheduling conflict with an annual military drill and band show, the Admirals won't have home ice advantage for the best-of-five series despite finishing 30 points ahead of the Monarchs in the standings. Norfolk and Manchester haven't played all season, and in the playoffs just as in boxing, styles make the fight, so we'll see how these two teams match up. Manchester is veteran laden, but is missing a couple of good younger players that are currently up with the LA Kings for their playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks. I think the lack of familiarity may play in the Admirals' favor, as Manchester is a little bit older and hasn't seen the speed that Norfolk brings to the rink both with their skating and the transition game that guys like Mark Barberio and Mike Kostka start from the blueline, but you never know until the game gets onto the ice. With so many rookies contributing to Norfolk's success that have never seen professional playoff hockey, we don't know how they'll react to the pressure, especially in a nightmare scenario if Manchester can pick off one of the first two games at Scope.
It's critically important that the Admirals set the 28 game regular season streak aside and focus on the fact they desperately need to set the tone quickly and win Game One and Game Two in Norfolk. Fortunately, the Admirals have the AHL Coach of the Year, Jon Cooper, to get them refocused for the postseason. The Admirals also got Jon Kalinski back in the lineup this weekend, and the expectation is that Mike Angelidis will be back next weekend for the club. So, other than Richard Petiot, Norfolk looks to be almost completely healthy heading into the looming war of attrition that is professional playoff hockey.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
It took a bit longer than usual, but it's David Shaw in overtime! #27!
Dustin Tokarski allowed 2 goals on 24 shots including a ten bell save in overtime to get his 13th straight victory. He now is unlikely to best his .915 (currently .913) rookie save percentage, but he's improved his career marks in every other major statistical category this year, and his 32 wins are a lock now to be the best in the AHL.
NOR Conacher, (36) (Killorn), 19:24
BNG Hoffman, (21) (Gryba, Dziurzynski), 15:17 (PP)
BNG Puempel, (1) (Conboy), 17:13
NOR Killorn, (2) (Oberg, Kostka), 13:21 (PP)
NOR Barberio, (14) (Kostka), 2:04 (PP)
It's been interesting with all the hardware being thrown in Norfolk's direction to players like Cory Conacher and Mark Barberio how there's been a little unstated internal pressure here at Bolt Prospects to reassess the situation at the top of our prospect rankings. Now, there's no doubt that Conacher and Barberio are fantastic players, but a night like tonight shows what Alex Killorn brings to the table. As expected, he's getting more comfortable with his teammates, and he was the best Admiral on the ice tonight. He made a great play to set up Conacher on the Admirals' first goal (no-look, behind-the-back, Harlem Globetrotters type stuff), and with Conacher sitting for what appeared to be disciplinary reasons from late in the second period on, Killorn played a ton during Norfolk's successful comeback bid. His power play goal was another Killorn classic, where he used his speed down the wing to blaze around the corner and then deked to his backhand to finally penetrate the forcefield that McKenna seemed to have up behind him. Point being, Killorn belongs in the same sentence with those players. When you consider this is just his 9th pro game, the fact he can already dominate a night like this is impressive. With the playoffs yet to go, look for him to put up a strong defense of his spot on the rankings. I'm really looking forward to it.
Should we be concerned it took the Admirals putting forth this much effort to put away the league's worst team, Bingo? No. This was the Senators' last game of the season, and they had nothing else to play for. This was Game Seven of the Stanley Cup and the Super Bowl all wrapped into one for them, and the Ads still outshot them 49-24. Only McKenna's brilliance kept this from being a slaughter.
Norfolk finishes their regular season tomorrow night against Adirondack, which was eliminated from playoff contention earlier today. That leaves 3 teams vying for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference: Portland, Syracuse, and Manchester. The plot thickens for all three teams after today's results. Manchester beat the paste out of Hershey 5-1, moving them into a tie with idle Portland at 81 points. Syracuse was embroiled in a struggle with Connecticut, but they managed to sneak by in the shootout. So here's the state of play heading into tomorrow's deciding games. Syracuse holds 7th at 82 points. They control their destiny. Manchester holds 8th because while both Manchester and Portland have 81 points, Manchester leads in ROW by 2 over both Syracuse and Portland. That means the Monarchs win any tiebreaker against both teams. Portland sits in 9th. Manchester draws the toughest opponent tomorrow in 2nd place St. John's. Portland gets 12th place Providence. Syracuse gets 14th place Albany. Throw the records out in a situation like this though. Norfolk draws the 8th seed when the dust settles tomorrow.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
The American Hockey League announced today that left wing Cory Conacher of the Norfolk Admirals has been named the winner of the Les Cunningham Award as the AHLâ€™s most valuable player for the 2011-12 season, as voted by AHL coaches, players and media in each of the leagueâ€™s 30 member cities.
Conacher becomes the fourth rookie to win the award since it was first presented in 1947-48, joining Bill Hicke (1958-59), Pelle Lindbergh (1980-81) and Stephan Lebeau (1988-89).
(Norfolk Admirals press release) The American Hockey League announced today that forward Cory Conacher of the Norfolk Admirals has been named the winner of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHLâ€™s outstanding rookie for the 2011-12 season, as voted by AHL coaches, players and media in each of the leagueâ€™s 30 member cities.
Conacher signed with Norfolk following four seasons at Canisius College and an impressive training camp with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and has been one of the top scorers in the league since opening the year with 12 points in nine games during October. Conacher, who only once has gone more than two games without a point this season, leads all AHL rookies with 75 points and ranks second in goals (35) and assists (40) while showing a plus-13 rating in 72 games for the Admirals. He is also first among rookies in power-play goals (14) and game-winning goals (seven). A 22-year-old native of Burlington, Ont., Conacher represented Norfolk at the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic and tied game highs with two goals and three points in the contest. Named an All-Rookie Team member and a Second Team AHL All-Star at left wing last week, Conacher signed a two-year deal with the Lightning on Mar. 1.