Charting a course to history

by Keith Phillips || AHL On The Beat Archive

Last season, forward Mike Angelidis suffered a concussion during Norfolk’s first playoff game in three years. He was one of several key players who were injured or called up by the parent Tampa Bay Lightning during the Admirals’ East Division semifinal series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

While the Admirals took a 2-0 series lead, they ultimately fell in six games to the Penguins. It continued a run of playoff futility in Hampton Roads that began after the Admirals won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Championship in 1998.

Since joining the American Hockey League in 2000-01, Norfolk has qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs eight times. They have won just three playoff series — none since 2004.

"Last year was disappointing," said Angelidis, who was named Admirals captain earlier this season. "We lost so many guys to injury and the cards didn’t fall into place."

Fast-forward one season later, and the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals are looking to rewrite the history books on the franchise’s playoff success. Entering the final month of the regular season, Norfolk sits atop the overall AHL standings. And on Mar. 16, the Admirals became the first team to clinch a berth in the 2012 postseason.

"We’ve already started talking about playoffs," said Angelidis on the team’s weekly radio show earlier this month. "I’ve never seen that before on a team –- when you start talking about playoffs even before the halfway point of the season. A lot of teams are just trying to get to the playoffs. We’re already talking about what we’re going to do in the playoffs."

Playing in a building that proudly hangs three ECHL championship, two ECHL division title and two AHL division title banners in its rafters, it’s rare for a team to amend its franchise record book. But Norfolk’s 7-2 win over the Charlotte Checkers on Mar. 16 was their 17th victory in a row -– matching the longest streak in AHL history and more than doubling the record for the longest winning streak since pro hockey returned to Hampton Roads in 1989.

The winning streak, which began on Feb. 10, has reinforced the notion that this team is special. So what is the difference between this Norfolk team and its predecessors?

"This year, we have a really deep team," said Angelidis, who is one of only seven players on Norfolk’s Clear Day list who played for the Admirals in 2010-11.

Depth has played a major role in Norfolk’s success this season, particularly during its winning streak. With key players such as Angelidis, Dustin Tokarski, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Evan Oberg, Brandon Segal and Trevor Smith seeing time with Tampa Bay, other players saw their roles on the team increase. They rose to meet the occasion.

In Norfolk’s 17 consecutive victories from Feb. 10 through Mar. 16, 25 skaters appeared in at least one game. Twenty-one of those skaters had points, 14 players had five or more points, 17 of them had goals, 14 had multiple goals, 13 players had game-winning goals and 23 skaters had an even or better plus/minus rating.

Youth has led the way for Norfolk, both during the streak and during the season overall.

Since Feb. 10, no AHL player has recorded more points than Tyler Johnson, who has used 11 goals and 29 points in the 17 games to jump into second place in AHL rookie scoring race, and eighth place in overall AHL scoring.

Johnson’s roommate, Cory Conacher (32-37-69), has led AHL rookies in scoring and has been among the overall league leaders in goals nearly the entire 2011-12 season.

A rookie has scored a goal in 59 of Norfolk’s first 65 games this season -– including 15 of the Admirals’ 17 wins during the streak.

"We got a good look at them in [Lightning] development camp during the summer," said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. "That heightened expectations a little bit, but those expectations have far beyond been exceeded by what [the rookies] have done on the ice."

Other young players enjoying good seasons include sophomore pro defensemen Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas. Barberio (11-43-54) has already posted the most points from the blue line in a single season in AHL Admirals history, becoming the first Norfolk defenseman to eclipse the 50-point plateau. He also boasts a plus/minus rating (+20) among the best for a defenseman in the AHL, and is the only defenseman in the top 30 of overall scoring in the AHL.

Gudas (7-12-19) brings a tough, sandpaper game to the point in Norfolk, leading the team in penalty minutes (168) while ranking in the top five of plus/minus (+18).

A strong veteran core complements Norfolk’s youth movement. Cooper relies upon their leadership to promote an atmosphere of development through winning.

"You have to have a good set of core veterans that are confident in what we are trying to preach," said Cooper. "They parlay that on to the rookies and help to create a unified atmosphere."

On the ice, veterans such as Trevor Smith, Mike Kostka and Pierre-Cedric Labrie have been among the team leaders in scoring all season. In addition, forwards Michel Ouellet and Alexandre Picard have been re-inserted into the lineup following lengthy injuries. Both have made key contributions during the Admirals’ winning streak, with Picard posting 11 points and Ouellet scoring four goals – including a pair of game-winning goals – and the game-winning, ninth-round shootout conversion in front of a sellout crowd on Feb. 18 vs. Syracuse.

While Norfolk’s league-leading offense has been solid all season, their defense has led the way during the second half of the season. During the 17-game winning streak, Norfolk has outscored its opponents 71-29, averaging 1.71 goals against per game.

Goaltender Dustin Tokarski established a new AHL Admirals record with an eight-game winning streak on Mar. 3 vs. Springfield, posting a 1.75 GAA, .927 save percentage and two shutouts in that span. He has also run his season total to 27 wins (tops in the AHL) and has tied Michael Leighton‘s record with 75 career wins as an Admiral.

With Tokarski currently on recall to the Lightning due to an injury to Tampa Bay netminder Mathieu Garon, Jaroslav Janus has seized the reins and surpassed Tokarski’s two-week-old franchise record by winning nine straight decisions. Janus, 9-0-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .937 save percentage since Feb. 12, is joined by rookie goalie Pat Nagle, who was reassigned to the Admirals from the ECHL’s Florida Everblades on Mar. 7.

Between stellar rookies, contributions from the blue line, veteran leadership on and off the ice, solid goaltending and the coaching that has brought it all together, there is a good chance Norfolk will bring some hardware home as the AHL’s end-of-season awards are announced in the next month.

But for Angelidis and company, there is only one piece of hardware they want.

"Sometimes teams go into the playoffs with the attitude of, ‘Let’s see how far we can go,’" said Angelidis. "This year, we’re coming in with the attitude that we’re not settling. We’re making sure the guys know that we’re not planning on going home until June.

"Our mindset is to win it all this year. If we don’t win the Calder Cup, we’ve fallen short."

If that happens, it will end a run of Calder Cup Playoff futility for the Admirals while quenching the championship thirst of hockey fans in Hampton Roads after a drought of 13 years.