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CP: Admirals look to push streak to 19

by Chris Johnston || The Canadian Press

(CP) — It was Super Bowl Sunday and the Norfolk Admirals had just blown a third-period lead to Springfield. There was no question in the visitors dressing room at MassMutual Center how coach Jon Cooper felt about the performance.

"None of the guys got out of their gear," Cooper recalled this week. "We brought video into the room and guys had to sit there and watch it."

Something must have clicked. The Admirals haven’t lost since.

A record-setting streak of 18 straight victories followed that frustrating afternoon, the most any team has ever reeled off during one season in the American Hockey League. Norfolk will be looking to extend that mark further starting with the first of back-to-back games against Albany on Friday night.

Interestingly, the wins have come easier and easier as the streak has built. Rather than buckle under mounting pressure, the Admirals put the pedal to the floor and outscored opponents 40-12 in the last nine games alone.

"As this has gone on, our confidence level has gone way up," Cooper said. "Now we really have a mental makeup to our team that it’s almost like we have a one-goal lead going into games. Just because of everyone in our room — they don’t think they’re going to win games, they know they’re going to win games."

There is mounting evidence to prove it.

Norfolk was the first AHL team to wrap up a playoff spot and they’re likely to finish the regular season with the highest point total. But all anyone wants to talk about these days is the streak that has thrust the Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate into a spotlight like never before.

The best part? They’re loving every minute of it.

"If this is a distraction then I’ll take distractions like this any week," Cooper said.

The win streak nearly didn’t get off the ground. On Feb. 15, the Admirals were in tough against Wilkes Barre/Scranton before the momentum unexpectedly swung in their favour. That was win No. 4 during the run.

"There was a goal that we pretty much all thought was in the net for the other team and they disallowed it," Cooper said. "And then we scored right away and kind of took over the game and won. Then we played two nights later and the exact same thing happened.

"It was like ‘wow, things are really going our way.’ We’ve kind of just taken off from there."

Norfolk has relied on a number of young players this season, most notably rookie Cory Conacher of Burlington, Ont., who leads the AHL with 34 goals. A look down the team’s roster shows a handful of players with birthdays in the 1990s.

"A bunch of them started out healthy scratches to start the year and now we would never win without them," Cooper said.

The coach has travelled an unlikely route of his own to the AHL. A native of Prince George, B.C., Cooper went through law school and opened a practice in Michigan, where he started coaching a minor hockey team on the side.

After five years of that, Cooper elected to give up law and pursue a career in coaching.

"Now I’m on the phone with you," he says with a laugh.

Wins have followed him in bunches as he moved around the country. The St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League went 47-9-2 under Cooper in 2007-08 before the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL compiled a 84-27-9 record over two seasons with him at the helm.

That prompted the Lightning organization to take a chance and hire him in the summer of 2010.

Less than two years later, the Admirals are the talk of the town — and beyond.

"Hockey usually is not priority No. 1 in mideast Virginia, but it definitely has been this week," Cooper said. "So it’s been a lot of fun."