It's been a day since the Norfolk Admirals hoisted the Calder Cup for the first time. The amazing thing about championships is that they're a shared milestone in the lives of, really, thousands, between the players, coaches, staff, and fans. Those journeys often contain compelling stories that make the triumph worth that journey. For Jon Cooper, it was about closing down his law practice to coach his way from Michigan high school hockey, to the USHL to working with Hockey USA, to a 2 season sprint to glory in the AHL. For Cory Conacher, it was about not being drafted and playing hockey at off-the-beaten path Canisius, dealing with diabetes, and earning an NHL contract in March of an MVP season before posting 4 assists in the championship clinching Calder Cup Finals game.
The stories of the players and the coaches are the ones we'll read about in the coming months and years, and they should be. When the Lightning made their Stanley Cup run in 2003-2004 and were playing the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, John Tortorella refused to fire back at Ken Hithcock's remarks about "Italians from Boston," because Torts rightfully understood, "It's about the athletes." Ultimately, they're the ones who score the goals and make the saves. They sacrifice their bodies and take the stitches and they take the slings and arrows if they lose. Ultimately, it's their moment, and to a lesser extent the moments of their families who supported them in the journey up to those moments. The hockey moms and dads who woke up at 6:00 am to drive their kids to games. Scratching together money for skates and ridiculously expensive composite sticks. The wives and significant others who live with the players and coaches through the disappointments and the frustrations, and live in fear of moments when things can go wrong, like when slap shots can hit a man in the ear at 90 miles an hour, similar to what happened to Scott Jackson.
Less compelling, perhaps, is the story of an organization, but, these are stories can be worth telling, too... especially in this case. We started beta testing Bolt Prospects in 2004-2005, one year after the Lightning's Cup win, in the heart of the NHL lockout. That year was also the first year since the Detroit Vipers of the IHL folded after the 2000-2001 season that the Lightning had a full-time minor league affiliate: the Springfield Falcons. Absent a full-time affiliate, it became clear the Lightning would struggle to maintain their spot on top of the hockey mountain, because split affiliates would not give prime ice time and coaching help to another organization's players. That problem prompted the start of an 8 year process for the Lightning that ended in building what must be considered the sport's preeminent developmental apparatus with the Norfolk Admirals' Calder Cup championship and the Florida Everblades' Kelly Cup Championship.
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.
The hockey gods have spoken.
Norfolk Leads the Series 3-0
Dustin Tokarski stopped all 21 shots he faced for the shutout victory, his 3rd of the postseason. He had long stretches of inactivity and then had to deal with some difficult chances, because a lot of what Toronto does is below the goal line using their size. He's now 11-2-0 with 3 shutouts, a 1.49 GAA, and a .944 save percentage in the postseason. The big thing is, he's gotten better as the games have gotten bigger. He's only allowed 5 goals in the 7 games, thus far, of the Eastern Conference Finals and Calder Cup Finals. The defense in front of him has been exemplary, but he's made big saves when necessary.
NOR Kostka, (4) , 9:09
Mike Kostka and Tokarski were the game's second and third stars.
I could live another 100 years and I'll never see another game that important end on a play that fluky. You just witnessed once-in-a-lifetime, folks. For those who didn't see it, Mike Kostka tried to make a dump-in from the red line that hopped off the right wing boards in the Toronto zone, Scrivens departed his net to try to play the puck behind his cage, and the puck took a weird bounce straight off the glass and made a bee line right into the net. Unbelievable. Norfolk deserved to win this game. They hit three posts (actually four, because TJ had a double-poster) and really had Toronto on their heels most of the contest. But it almost seems like stealing to win it this way. Clearly, the hockey gods have selected their club in this series. When things like that happen, it's hard not to think you have the mantle of team of destiny.
Norfolk goes for the Cup clincher Saturday at 3 pm. As with tonight, all games from here on out will be televised on CBS Sports Network from the LeafsTV feed. If there's a Game Five, it'll be Sunday at 3 pm. At this stage, as deflating as that loss must've been for the Marlies, I would be surprised if there's another game in Norfolk this season.
I think you're going to see Norfolk stamp its claim as one of the greatest single season teams ever in AHL history this weekend. Ever. Between the regular season streak and the way they've been so good defensively in the postseason and, so far, unblemished in the Eastern Conference Finals and Calder Cup Finals, they belong in the conversation. On paper, you'd probably have to say that Hershey team from a couple of years ago is the front runner for that title, but this Admirals team has done/is doing some things not even that loaded Bears team could do. It's going to be interesting to see how this group gets put in historical perspective.
Note, the mere fact I just typed that considering Jon Cooper's only in his second year as a professional coach and there were 6 rookies in the lineup tonight for Norfolk, many of which were Norfolk's best players, speaks volumes about how special this group is and how exciting the coming years are going to be for Lightning fans as these young men continue to grow up and make their bids to be NHLers. Imagine, these guys are going to be added to the likes of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Kind of makes you smile inside, doesn't it?
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.