The strength of the Lightning organization remains at the forward positions, where the team still boasts an impressive mix of star veterans like Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Ryan Malone, and the game's best young star, Steven Stamkos. The team will spend some of its offseason tweaking its third line, and they made overtures to Swiss star Damien Brunner to try to improve their scoring depth on the wings. But, ultimately, the team should feel pretty solid offensively. Keeping the puck out of the back of their own net has always been the bigger challenge.
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.
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.
PANIK ATTACK, Y'ALL!!!
Norfolk Wins the Series 4-2
Jaroslav Janus allowed 1 goal on 31 shots for the victory. The one goal he allowed was on a weak rebound that ended up ping-ponging behind him, but he was perfect from thereon out. His 30 saves included a penalty shot stop on Connecticut's best scorer, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who did Janus a favor by taking his attempt at the pace of a snail's crawl. Easy money for a goaltender as quick and athletic as Janus.
CT Audy-Marchessault, (4) (Hrivik, Wellman), 14:49
NOR Johnson, (2) (Palat), 10:52
NOR Panik, (2) (Killorn, Oberg), 17:01
Richard Panik and Janus were the game's first and second stars. Panik is made of steel. He took a slapshot to the face in the Third Period and looked tough as nails immediately popping up and skating to the locker room for his medical care. No nonsense. Stitch me up. He gets back out midway through Overtime, and on his first shift he absolutely dejocked Cameron Talbot on a backhand-forehand deke for the breakaway winner in Overtime. He was ineffective the final month of the regular season, but what has impressed me in these playoffs is that although the points haven't come in droves, he's been very strong on the puck on the forecheck and he's contributed in other areas. I felt so good for the young man to get the winner.
What a stretch pass by the already immortal Alex Killorn to get Panik that breakaway. Good Lord. I hope Norfolk's trainer did up Panik's face with that kind of laser-like surgical precision.
Other than Alexandre Picard, I don't know if there's been any Admirals player who has been as consistently strong as Ondrej Palat in these playoffs. That guy was a playmaking demon tonight. I'm not surprised Norfolk won it in Overtime. I am surprised Palat didn't set up or score the winner. It seemed like he set up at least a half dozen dangerous chances in the game, including Tyler Johnson's key tying goal in the Third Period. I'm really starting to love me some Ondrej Palat.
It really is a game of (less than) inches. Marek Hrivik had a shot in the Third Period that hit the underside of the crossbar and was waved off that would've given Connecticut a 2-0 lead and likely the game. With Cameron Talbot looking like a wall in net and the Whale defense looking stifling through the first 40 minutes of play, it really did look like the Admirals were going to have to play Game Seven late Sunday afternoon. 1/4 inch lower and Norfolk probably loses. Instead, the Admirals mashed down on the gas pedal and ended up outshooting the Whale 34-7 in the Third and Overtime, after getting outshot 24-12 in the first two frames.
Norfolk awaits the winner of Game Seven between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and St. John's tomorrow night in the Eastern Conference Finals after the Penguins took Game Six from the IceCaps earlier tonight 4-2. Norfolk should resolve that whoever makes it out of that series, the Admirals jump on them immediately in Game One. Whoever survives that Game Seven will be emotionally drained and have to travel from St. John's all the way to Norfolk. Jump on them and don't look back. In the West, Oklahoma City finished out their series tonight and they'll face Toronto in the Western Conference Finals.
Box score from TheAHL.com.