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.