A brave Norfolk Admirals team has nothing to be ashamed about effort-wise in this playoffs.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Wins the Series 4-2
Dustin Tokarski allowed 4 goals on 27 shots, including an unsuccessful third period penalty shot by Joe Vitale in the third period. Considering the winning goal was essentially a 3-on-1, there's not much more Tic could've done tonight. He finishes the playoffs with 1 shutout, a 2.20 GAA, and a .924 save percentage, and he looks like a lock to be Norfolk's starter next season. In all likelihood, Cedrick Desjardins will be the backup in Tampa Bay next season, and Tokarski's play down the stretch seems to indicate he's the type of netminder who wants and needs to be the clear cut #1 in order to be at his best after struggling a bit as a tandem starter with Desjardins. He's regained the title of the Lightning's "Goaltender of the Future" and the priority for next season, his third pro season, will be for Tokarski to prove he can be that consistent #1 goalie before potentially moving up to the NHL in the 4th season of his pro career. At least, that seems to be what the plan is for Tic.
WBS Wagner, (1) (Walker, Craig), 2:13 (PP)
WBS Wagner, (2) (Potter, Walker), 3:58 (PP)
WBS Wagner, (3) (Wallace, Potter), 18:36
NOR Pouliot, (4) (Ritola, Vernace), 14:18
NOR Jones, (1) (Ritola, Milam), 16:03 (PP)
WBS Vitale, (2) (Wallace, Collins), 7:23
NOR Wright, (1) (Fornataro, Pouliot), 10:35 (PP)
WBS Wallace, (1) (Vitale, Potter), 18:57 (EN)
WBS Sill, (1) (Strait, Thiessen), 19:21 (EN)
Marc-Antoine Pouliot was the game's third star.
When you consider the Penguins came into this series the best team in the Eastern Conference, and the Admirals had to win their last game just to avoid having to cross over into the Atlantic Division, the Admirals have nothing to feel ashamed of in playing this series so tightly. The hard work and character of this Admirals team is worthy of mention, and the team and organization have come such a long way in 4 seasons since the Lightning started their affiliation with Norfolk.
Coincidentally, the East's crossover team, Binghamton, just knocked off Manchester in Game 7 to advance to the Atlantic Division final against Portland. One wonders what shape a Norfolk/Manchester series might have taken if Norfolk hadn't beaten Connecticut to close the regular season.
The big question now is what this Norfolk Admirals team will look like next season, with several of their older players facing contract decisions and several of the Lightning's best young prospects ticketed for Virginia next season.
Will veterans like Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Chris Durno, Mike Vernace, Mathieu Roy, and Troy Milam be back with the team next year? What about long-time pros like Blair Jones, Mike Angelidis, Mattias Ritola, and Vladimir Mihalik? Mihalik and Ritola just finished their 4th years of pro hockey and Jones and Angelidis finished their 5th. Many of these players will surely have opportunities to play in European leagues next season. We know Johan Harju will, for instance, and the question is whether Johan will stay in North America after a disappointing second half. And will Kevin Quick's time in the Lightning organization be over as well?
Conversely, the Admirals will need to free up spots for several of the Lightning's top prospects. Carter Ashton and Charles Landry have already made appearances for the club this season in the playoffs. Richard Panik and Tyler Johnson seem like locks to be in Norfolk next season, too.
Next season could be a big change for the Admirals organization, as the last vestiges of previous regimes pass on. Change is inevitable for a minor league club, but the Admirals seem destined for even more change than is the norm. The good news is that they seem to have good goaltending locked down and even better coaching after a successful inaugural campaign by Head Coach Jon Cooper and assistant Mike Flanagan along with player development consultant Steve Thomas. This group seems to have taken a decent foundation laid by earlier teams and made it even stronger this year, and that foundation can help the new Admirals grow to be even more successful than this year's edition, in time. Look at how well guys like Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas took to the league this season. It portends good things.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
A brave effort by the Admirals comes an eyelash short.
Norfolk Leads the Series 2-1
Dustin Tokarski allowed 2 goals on 25 shots for the loss.
WBS Veilleux, (2) , 17:58
NOR Giliati, (1) (Roy, Vernace), 15:40 (PP)
WBS Lerg, (1) (Hutchinson, Thiessen), 10:20 (PP)
Stefano Giliati and Tokarski were the game's second and third stars. Giliati played a heck of a game and was arguably the team's most dangerous forward.
Due to injuries, the Admirals were already without the services of Alex Berry and Mike Angelidis going into the week. They lost 2/3 of arguably the best line in the AHL to recall when Mattias Ritola and Blair Jones were moved up to Tampa Bay earlier in the day. Captain Chris Durno then went out very early in the game with an injury and never returned, and was soon followed to the locker room by Paul Szczechura, who was injured by Brian Strait after the whistle in a very questionable play. So, the Admirals played the Penguins to a stalemate with no less than 6 of their best forwards out of the lineup until a Pierre-Cedric Labrie double minor for high-sticking gave the Pens the opportunity to get the go-ahead goal.
The difficulty for the Admirals now is that Ritola and Jones won't return for Game Four tomorrow night, and Durno and Szczechura's injuries are obviously serious to have missed the remainder of the game when the team was so shorthanded. The Admirals do have a healthy Alex Hutchings on the roster, but Hutchings was not listed on the team's Clear Day roster as a player in residence. So the team may be very shorthanded again in Game Four. Tonight might have been the Admirals' best chance to get to a third win before Friday. You knew things were dire when Admirals radio voice Pete Michaud let a Freudian slip that the Pens were about to tie up the series if they could hold off Norfolk in the final few minutes of the game.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
It's an organization-wide Lightning vs. Penguins playoff matchup.
Jaroslav Janus allowed 3 goals on 20 shots for the victory.
NOR Pouliot, (25) (Ritola), 9:26
NOR Szczechura, (21) (Milam, Barberio), 15:46 (PP)
NOR Jones, (24) (Pouliot, Ritola), 19:22 (PP)
CT Mitchell, (8) (Couture, Valentenko), 1:02
NOR Ritola, (9) (Jones), 3:15
NOR Szczechura, (22) (Wright, Harju), 5:34
CT Valentenko, (5) (Yogan, Dupont), 13:10
CT Niemi, (3) (Grachev, Couture), 11:56 (PP)
NOR Angelidis, (20) , 17:36
In 56 games, Blair Jones set a new career high in points with 55. His previous high was 54 in 80 games two seasons ago.
Johan Harju finishes his rookie AHL campaign with 23 goals and 52 points in 63 games, and a +15 rating.
With the victory, Norfolk leapfrogged Binghamton into 4th place in the East Division. That means Norfolk will draw the top team in the Eastern Conference, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, in the first round. The Pens have the stingiest goaltending and defense in the conference, allowing just 183 goals (2.29 GAA). It'll also be an interesting meeting of old friends, as a key member of the Pens is BoltProspects alumni Ryan Craig. Craig had 19 goals and 48 points to finish 2nd on the Pens in scoring this season.
It's a brutally tough matchup. The key will be for Norfolk to focus on getting a win in the first two on the road. Get that win, settle into the grind of the series, and let the chips fall where they may. On paper, Norfolk is as talented as anyone in the conference, although there's a question mark in net with Dustin Tokarski recovering from getting slashed with a skate. If they get goaltending, though, they have a chance.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Disaster in Charlotte.
CHA Dalpe, (20) (Jordan, McNicoll), 4:30 (PP)
CHA Dalpe, (21) (Micflikier, Boychuk), 10:52
NOR Szczechura, (19) (Jones, Pouliot), 13:43
CHA Terry, (32) (Matsumoto), 16:32
CHA Pistilli, (6) (Terry, Jordan), 0:07
CHA McNicoll, (4) (Boychuk, Sanguinetti), 4:26 (PP)
CHA Nash, (14) , 9:33
CHA Boychuk, (22) (Micflikier, Dalpe), 16:35
CHA Blanchard, (7) (Sutter, Bellemore), 7:09 (SH)
NOR Angelidis, (19) (Durno, Barberio), 7:39 (PP)
Yuck. There had been some hope that since the Checkers had to travel further that they'd be the more tired of the two teams. Norfolk did outshoot Charlotte 41-23 in the contest, but it didn't matter considering 1 out of every 3 shots was going in for the Checkers. Mercy. The silver lining is that Paul Szczechura and Mike Angelidis each got their 19th goals of the season, putting them 1 shy of the magic 20 goal mark.
Norfolk's fortunes in the standings took a beating tonight, too. 3rd place Charlotte moved 3 points ahead with the Admirals still owning 3 games in hand. 2nd place Hershey lost in overtime to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton so they gained a point and are now 6 points up on the Admirals with Norfolk holding 3 games in hand. But, now Norfolk is receiving pressure from behind them. Binghamton won today, moving them to within 1 point of Norfolk with the Admirals still holding 2 games in hand. Heck, even Worcester won in the crossover.
With 8 regular season games to go, a lot of positive scenarios are still open for Norfolk to achieve, but unfortunately some of the disappointing ones are still on the table, too. Norfolk has a brutal schedule next week, although all three games are at least at home: the Penguins on Wednesday and the Bears on Friday and Saturday. And then, the final week of the season will be a grueling 5 game road trip over 7 nights in Charlotte, Binghamton, a 2 game set in Syracuse, and a season capping matchup in Connecticut against the Whale. It may be a good thing that Norfolk has an 8 point lead in the crossover, after all.
Box score from TheAHL.com.
Tic returns with a vengeance.
Dustin Tokarski returned from missing the weekend set against Albany with a minor injury to stop 32 of 33 shots for the victory. Since the start of February, Tic has gone 10-2-2 with 2 shutouts, and he's 6-1-0 in the month of March with 1 shutout, a 1.56 GAA, and a .942 save percentage. Put simply, Tic continues to live up to his reputation of playing his best when the stakes go up. Don't gamble with Tic: he'll take your money, your shirt, your car keys, and your girl. Believe it.
NOR Roy, (4) , 2:29
NOR Angelidis, (18) (Wright), 4:38 (SH)
ADK Pither, (9) , 16:43 (PP)
Tokarski, Mathieu Roy, and Mike Angelidis were the game's three stars. Angelidis has obliterated his career best statistics this season playing a very well rounded, power forward's game with 18 goals, 35 points, a +19 rating in 69 games. He's also tied his career high of 151 penalty minutes, to boot.
Norfolk moves into 3rd in the East Division via the win percentage tiebreaker over Charlotte and are now 5 points back of 2nd place Hershey with 3 games in hand. They also maintain a 5 point gap on 5th place Binghamton with 2 games in hand and they've expanded their lead on the Atlantic's 4th place team, Worcester, to 8 points with 2 games in hand. With 11 games left to go in the regular season, Norfolk has 86 points, meaning they likely need just 2-4 points to realistically insure a playoff spot, and they control their own destiny in terms of moving up to 2nd in the Division to try to clinch home ice in the first round.
But, the degree of difficulty goes up this weekend. Norfolk faces Manchester Friday and Saturday before traveling to Charlotte on Sunday. The Monarchs are a solid 2nd in the Atlantic Division and Charlotte has refused to go away all season long.
One other note: with their victory tonight the Admirals moved past their point total (84) from all of last season, with another 22 points still up for grabs on the schedule. After a rough start to its affiliation with Norfolk, the Lightning's farmhands have improved each season.
Box score from TheAHL.com.