by Keith Phillips || AHL On The Beat Archive
Everyone at Norfolk Scope Arena was on the edge of their seats. First place in the East Division was on the line, and the clock was winding down in overtime between the Norfolk Admirals and the Hershey Bears.
Just moments after the goal, a second set of cheers broke out when the Admirals skated to center ice and raised their sticks to salute the first sellout crowd in seven seasons of AHL Admirals hockey.
After averaging fewer than 4,300 fans and ranking in the bottom third of the league in attendance over the past three seasons, Norfolk is once again becoming a hockey town. The 2006-07 Admirals sit atop the overall AHL standings, and Hampton Roads residents are flocking to see the best team to take the ice at Scope in many years.
The Admirals have played in front of crowds in excess of 5,200 people in seven of the past eight home games – including the capacity crowd of 8,784 fans on Jan. 26 versus Hershey. Norfolk has an average attendance of just over 4,400 so far this season – good for 15th in the AHL as of February 4.
“These fans really get behind their team here,” said head coach Mike Haviland. “It’s almost like having a sixth man out there.”
Admirals fans have not gone home disappointed too often this season. The Admirals have points in all but one of 28 games played at venerable Scope Arena. Their 4-3 shootout victory over Philadelphia on Feb. 3 was the team’s 25th home win of the campaign – already a new single-season franchise record with 12 regular-season games at Scope remaining.
“Right now, we have really good feelings whenever we play in this building,” said goaltender Corey Crawford.
Crawford has been one of the primary sources of the good feelings for Admirals fans this season. Chants of “CO-REY, CO-REY” are becoming routine at Scope, as Crawford has been between the pipes for 21 of the 25 Admirals home victories so far.
The sophomore pro netminder has shown great improvement over his rookie season. With win number 28 on Feb. 3, Crawford established a new Norfolk mark for wins in a single season and tied Craig Anderson for second place on the all-time wins list with 50 victories.
This came just one season after he set the record for most losses in a season.
“My overall game is better – focus, skill-wise, hand-eye coordination, quickness, puck handling … everything is better,” said Crawford. “I work to get better every day – that’s my overall goal.”
While Crawford strives to keep his net empty, several of his teammates are filling the opposite cage with goals. Leading the way is second-year Admiral Martin St. Pierre, who became the second player in the AHL to reach 70 points and should soon top his own 73-point franchise record from last season. He has already bested his own team mark for assists in a season after surpassing the 50-assist plateau.
Many of St. Pierre’s assists were from passes dished out to Brandon Bochenski and Troy Brouwer. The trio completed one of the league’s most potent scoring lines during the first half of the season. Bochenski tied a franchise mark with 33 goals in 35 games before being traded to the Boston Bruins organization. Brouwer has turned many heads with over 50 points in his rookie pro season. He is currently playing in his second tour of NHL duty with the Chicago Blackhawks.
As players such as Bochenski and Brouwer have left the Admirals lineup, others have stepped up to light the lamp. Among them is rookie David Bolland, who has rebounded from an injury-plagued first half to fill the void on the first line and power play left by the losses of Bochenski and Brouwer.
“Bolland is playing more and he’s producing,” said Haviland. “That’s what good teams do – they find ways to win when the lineup might not be full. Our guys have done a great job stepping in and filling those voids.”
The Norfolk defense has also stepped up this season, allowing only 2.4 goals per game at home. Offensively, Danny Richmond and Dustin Byfuglien are both among the top ten scorers on the team. Richmond and Byfuglien are also among the plus/minus leaders on the team, joining rookie anchor Jordan Hendry and newcomer Bruno St. Jacques as standouts on a blueline corps that delivers timely offense, solid defense and hard hits.
Many of those hard hits have been delivered to East Division foes. With Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton experiencing torrid first halves similar to Norfolk’s, rivalries are intensifying. One week before the sellout crowd saw the overtime defeat of the Bears, 7,209 fans (a record crowd at the time) witnessed a 5-2 victory against the Penguins in a game that included a penalty-shot goal, stellar goaltending, a few bouts of fisticuffs and the birth of the center ice salute to the crowd by the players after home victories.
“There’s no love lost between us, Hershey, Wilkes-Barre and even Philly,” said Haviland. “The rivalries in this division are great. It prepares you for the playoffs.”
When asked about goals for the remainder of the season, assistant coach Ted Dent immediately spoke of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“We want to finish strong and make sure that we firm up home ice advantage for the playoffs. We have success here on home ice.”
The Admirals certainly hope that success continues. They want nothing less to be saluting their fans this June not only with their sticks raised in the air – but with the Calder Cup, as well.