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.
Until Roloson stops allowing soft goals, the Lightning will not win.
Pittsburgh Leads the Series 3-1
Dwayne Roloson allowed 3 goals on 53 shots for the loss. Yes, 50 saves in a big number. Yes, Roloson made several key saves to keep the game close. But, the first goal was a soft goal through Roloson on the short side, the second goal was off a bad rebound kicked straight up the slot, and the third goal was a soft goal short side high from a poor angle off the wall. If you're keeping score at home, that's 3 soft goals and 2 bad rebound goals in the last 2 games. It's a prerequisite in the playoffs for your goaltender to be one of your best players, and you cannot have your goaltender surrendering soft goals early in the game as Roloson has done in Game 3 and Game 4. Nothing sucks the life out of a team and poisons morale quicker, and so much of the playoffs is about willpower. It's frustrating. Roloson was magnificent in Game 1 and Game 2 in Pittsburgh, and if he had maintained that level of play I suspect the Lightning would be winning this series 3-1 instead of being down 3-1. Is he the only reason the Lightning lost the last 2 games? Absolutely not. However, it's a prerequisite for success in the playoffs that a goaltender not surrender bad goals. It cannot happen, and it's happened at least 3 times in the past 2 games.
08:14 PIT Kennedy (2), Michalek (1), Letestu (1)(PP)
02:39 PIT Asham (3), Lovejoy (2)
17:14 TB St Louis (4), Lecavalier (2), Purcell (1)
16:43 TB Bergenheim (1), St Louis (2), Kubina (1)
03:38 PIT Neal (1), Staal (2), Martin (2)
Martin St. Louis was the game's second star. The telepathy between he and Vincent Lecavalier, who laid out a pretty little aerial pass on the rush to spring St. Louis on his goal, was the stuff of legends.
All the Lightning can do now is try to win Game 5. They've dug an incredibly deep hole for themselves and they can't leap out with one effort. It's going to take some climbing one hand over the other toward the light, and it starts with putting together a redeeming effort in Game Five. It's going to be a damned bitter offseason if they don't.
Shorthanded Admirals can't quite get over the hump.
Series Tied at 2-2
Dustin Tokarski allowed 4 goals on 33 shots for the loss.
WBS Potter, (1) (Sill, Wagner), 4:48
NOR Harju, (1) (Pouliot, Fornataro), 16:04
WBS Strait, (1) (Sterling, Vitale), 2:38
NOR Pouliot, (3) (Mihalik, Fornataro), 13:25
WBS Craig, (1) (Lerg, Sterling), 18:17 (PP)
WBS Vitale, (1) (Collins, Potter), 15:38
Marc-Antoine Pouliot was named the game's second star.
Norfolk was allowed to insert Alex Hutchings in the lineup and they added Charles Landry, but they were still without 6 of their best forwards due to injuries and recalls. They may get one or both of Mattias Ritola and/or Blair Jones back for Game Five and with Tri-City being eliminated last night, there's the possibility of adding Carter Ashton to the lineup. Maybe they can get Angelidis or Berry back too? We'll see.
Game Five seems like a must-win, and the Admirals need as many hands on deck as possible.
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.