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Norfolk eyes to return to playoffs

March 24, 2011
Photo: John Wright

by Nathan Skytta || AHL On The Beat Archive

Every season prior to 2007-08, the Norfolk Admirals were almost a lock for the Calder Cup playoffs. The team had qualified for the playoffs each season since joining the American Hockey League in 2000-01. Whether they won the division outright or had to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs, the Admirals were annual playoff contenders.

After missing the playoffs the previous two years, the 2009-10 season brought the Admirals a glimmer of hope. After earning the fewest points in the league before the 2010 All-Star break, the Admirals recorded the sixth-most points in the second half of the season and had a shot at returning to the playoffs. The team needed back-to-back victories over their rivals, the Hershey Bears, along with help from a few other teams to qualify for the playoffs.

That's when things became very interesting for the players and their fans.

In 2009-10, the qualification rules for the Calder Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference included a potential crossover. Because there were are unequal number of teams in the Atlantic (eight) and East (seven) Divisions that season, if the fifth-place team in the Atlantic finished with more points than the fourth-place team in the East, then that team would qualify for the 2010 playoffs.

On Apr. 9, the first night of back-to-back games against the Bears, the Admirals' playoff hopes diminished, as they suffered a 6-1 setback. That same night, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers defeated the Lowell Devils, 6-3.

That meant the Admirals needed to defeat the Bears on Saturday night, followed by a Bridgeport and Lowell loss on that same night. Despite upending the Bears, 5-2, the Admirals' playoff hopes were dashed when the Sound Tigers and Devils were both victorious. The Admirals finished in fourth place in the East Division with 84 points but two points behind Bridgeport in the standings, and missed the playoffs for a third straight season.

"We weren't victims of the ruling last year," stated then-first-year Admirals netminder Dustin Tokarski. "The teams with the most points got in, and that's how it should be."

In 2010-11, the East Division has eight teams with the addition of the Charlotte Checkers (formerly the Albany River Rats) and the relocation of the Lowell Devils to Albany. The Atlantic Division contains only seven teams. As a result, the crossover rule this season is reversed from 2009-10: If the fifth-place team in the East has more points than the Atlantic's fourth-place team, then they will qualify for the playoffs and cross over into the Atlantic Division for the playoffs.

That means as many as five teams from Norfolk's East Division could qualify for the 2011 postseason.

With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Admirals reside in third place in the East Division. While Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has led the division for most of the season, the Admirals have been battling with the Bears, Checkers and Binghamton Senators to see who will lock up the second through fourth seeds, guaranteeing a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

"Instead of looking behind us, this year's team is looking ahead at the teams we can catch," said Tokarski. "We are more confident and believe that we can take on the league. We still have a chance at second or third place in the division, and players on this team want those spots."

The Admirals' run towards the playoffs has been energized by an offense that records the most shots on net per game (34.4), a defense that allows the fourth-fewest shots (27.4) on net and a special-teams core that ranks sixth in penalty killing and 12th with the man advantage.

The Admirals have received contributions from up and down the roster since opening night. On that night, nearly six months ago, the Admirals netted seven goals -- a mark the team only reached twice all of 2009-10, but has accomplished six different times in 2010-11.

The Admirals' collective mix of rookies and veterans has led the team to become the second-highest scoring team in the league, trailing only the Portland Pirates. Nineteen different Admirals have reached double-digits in points. Key aspects up front for the Admirals have been Blair Jones (currently on recall to the parent Tampa Bay Lightning), Johan Harju and Marc-Antoine Pouliot, who have all surpassed the 20-goal plateau.

"Our team has a good collection of guys," said Norfolk's rookie head coach Jon Cooper. "The veterans wearing the letters have stepped up on and off the ice, while the prospects have turned into just that, prospects."

Twenty-year-old defensemen Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas have also had a say this year's success. Barberio recently set the record for most points scored by an AHL Admirals rookie defenseman, and Gudas leads the team with 139 penalty minutes. They have been two of the many key assets on the Admirals blueline.

For most of the season, goaltending has been a strong point for the Admirals. Cedrick Desjardins and Tokarski have split most of the time between the pipes. When Desjardins suffered an upper-body injury in the middle of January, Tokarski took over and hasn't skipped a beat since.

"Our goaltenders have kept us not only in the 2-1 games but also the 5-4 games," stated Cooper. "They are responsible for most of our wins this year."

Tokarski currently ranks in the top-20 of 11 different AHL categories, including save percentage, goals-against average, wins and saves. Tokarski's record of 20-15-4 has been bolstered by a stellar mark of 9-1-2 since the middle of February.

The Admirals will conclude the home portion of their regular season next week, followed by a five-game road trip for a final playoff preparation.

"The three games before the road trip at home, including one against the Penguins and two against the Bears, will be the most important," Cooper said. "Hopefully we can take of business at home and not have to strap down during that five-game trip."

Once again, as the playoffs approach, the Admirals faithful look forward to cheering on their team down the stretch and hopefully for many more weeks.

On his first day in Norfolk, Cooper stated: "The one thing I have promised was that at the end of each night, the Norfolk Admirals fans will leave Scope Arena extremely proud of the team and the fact that we represent their city."

So far, the coach's promise has remained true.