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18 and counting for Norfolk Admirals

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
On the afternoon of Feb. 5, a couple things happened in the sports world.

In Indianapolis, the Giants bested the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

Meanwhile, 891 miles east in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Norfolk Admirals blew a third-period lead and suffered a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the hometown Falcons.

The Admirals haven’t lost since, playing a quarter of their 2011-12 schedule without a loss.

“I think we’re going to look back at this streak one day and really marvel at what we’ve accomplished,” Admirals head coach Jon Cooper said. “As the streak has gone on, it’s really taken on a life of its own. It’s become like the playoffs in that you focus so hard on each game, one at a time, because we don’t want this streak to ever end.”

When the Admirals begin their seven-game homestand this Friday night, they will do so with the AHL’s best record, and with the chance to set the record for the longest winning streak in the history of professional hockey.

“The more I think about it, it’s really remarkable what our guys have already accomplished,” Cooper added. “This whole thing has really become a lot of fun to be part of.”

When the Admirals’ winning streak started, their 57 points were tied as the seventh-best total in the 30-team American Hockey League. However, Norfolk was still trailing the perennially powerful Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the East Division standings, beginning its win streak as the fifth seed in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.

Norfolk is now 10 points clear of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and 13 points clear of Hershey, having gained 16 and 15 standings points on each team, respectively.

The Admirals have gained 19 points on the St. John’s IceCaps, the Eastern Conference-leading team which went from being nine points ahead of Norfolk to 10 points behind.

“If what we’ve been able to do puts a target on our back down the stretch and in the playoffs, it means we’ve done a lot of things right,” Cooper added. “Even if it means that every team brings their ‘A’ game against us, I’d take that any day of the week as opposed to being the team who hasn’t had as much success.”

As hot as the Admirals have been, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the winning streak is the wide margins by which they are beating teams. Norfolk has outscored its opponents by a clip of 76-29 during its 18-game winning streak, most recently outscoring Charlotte, 12-2, over two games and handing the Checkers their two most lopsided home defeats in team history.

Prior to thumping the Checkers, the Admirals ousted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton by a score of 4-1, limiting the Penguins to just 13 shots on goal.

“We have a heightened sense of urgency in our game right now,” Cooper said. “I think our level of confidence is a little elevated above some other teams right now. It gives us the feeling that we’re going to win games, while I think it gives our opponents the feeling that they aren’t going to win games.”

The other intriguing part of the winning streak is what it could lead to.

The team which previously held the AHL record for longest single-season win streak, the 2004-05 Philadelphia Phantoms, went on to win the Calder Cup that year. The Phantoms’ roster featured youngsters Patrick Sharp, R.J. Umberger, Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg; all of whom have gone on to have successful NHL careers.

The 1990-91 International Hockey League Peoria Rivermen won 18 straight games and are the team the Admirals are currently tied with for the longest winning streak in pro-hockey history.

The Rivermen were backstopped by future NHL All-Star and U.S. Olympian Guy Hebert in goal. In total, Peoria graduated 22 of its players to the NHL, including Tony Twist and Kelly Chase, who became two of the most feared enforcers in the NHL of the 1990s as members of the St. Louis Blues.

The 1990-91 Peoria Rivermen’s season also ended in a championship.

When you look at the Admirals’ roster, the questions have to be asked; which current Norfolk players will become the next household names in Tampa Bay?

If history is any indication, the odds are that several current Admirals will go on to have successful NHL careers with the Lightning.

With history suggesting that many of the current Admirals’ long-term fates are to be high-quality NHL players, the other remaining question is what the short-term fate of this record-breaking, 2011-12 Norfolk squad will be.

“I think we started the season as a good team,” Cooper said. “Right now, I think we’ve become a great team. The only step for these guys to take after becoming a great team is to become champions.”

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