In any playoff series, there’s a feeling-out process for a pair of opposing teams in a Game 1.
If Thursday night’s Game 1 was any indication of how the Norfolk Admirals and St. John’s IceCaps match up, then Norfolk looks to be in very good shape in its best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals series.
The Admirals rode the momentum of three second-period goals, two power-play goals and the stalwart goaltending of Dustin Tokarski to get a 6-1 win over the IceCaps in Game 1 in Norfolk, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that will decide the Eastern Conference’s representative in the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals.
“I can’t say enough about how the guys played tonight,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “I think we set a tone for the series with how we played tonight. St. John’s has some guys that can shoot the puck, though. I watched the tape of their games against Wilkes-Barre and they have some guys with some rockets, and I think Ticker (Dustin Tokarski) played outstanding.”
Tokarski, somewhat surprisingly getting the start after Jaroslav Janus got the nod in Norfolk’s final two Eastern Conference Semifinals games against the Connecticut Whale, emerged from the bench to make 29 saves on 30 shots and improve his record to 5-2 in the playoffs.
In fact, Tokarski was perfect until defenseman Zach Redmond scored the IceCaps’ only goal 2:11 into the third period. However, since the Admirals already had a 5-0 lead at the time of Redmond’s goal, faulting any aspect of Tokarski’s Game 1 performance would be on par with nitpicking at the tiniest flaw of a brilliant masterpiece.
“Tokarski was the guy that the coaching staff thought would give us the best chance to win tonight,” added Cooper. “They had some chances early in the game and right after he shut them down, we went down and scored. When that happens, it’s a huge lift in momentum for a team.”
Defenseman Mike Kostka was honored as the game’s first star on Thursday, as the blueliner that the Lightning acquired from the Florida Panthers in a Dec. trade scored a pair of nearly identical goals where he blasted slap shots from the right point past IceCaps starting goalie Eddie Pasquale.
Lightning prospect Alexandre Picard battles for control of the puck on Thursday night in Norfolk (Photo by John Wright / Norfolk Admirals)
Kostka’s pair of markers were two of four goals scored by Norfolk defensemen in Game 1. Meanwhile, for Kostka, his two goals give him eight points (3g, 5a) in the playoffs, tying him with St. John’s’ Paul Postma and Derek Meech for the AHL’s playoff scoring lead among defensemen.
“We had goals by three different defensemen tonight,” said Kostka. “We’re all trying to contribute any way we can. In the playoffs, our mindset is that no shot is a bad shot and we’re just trying to throw them at the net. But it’s huge when we can contribute the way we did tonight, though.”
Michel Ouellet, Jean-Philippe Cote, Ondrej Palat and Keith Aulie scored Norfolk’s four other goals, while Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson and Trevor Smith each chipped in a pair of assists, on a night the Admirals raced out to a 4-0 second-period lead to chase IceCaps starting goalie Eddie Pasquale from the crease.
Pasquale, St. John’s’ starting goalie in each of its first 11 playoff games, allowed four goals on 21 shots on Thursday. Overall, Pasquale has now allowed 10 goals over two career starts against the Admirals, after he allowed six goals in a 6-2 Norfolk win in St. John’s on Nov. 18.
“If you look at the goals we scored, there were a couple that Pasquale didn’t see,” said Cooper. “It doesn’t matter how good you are; if you can’t see them, they are hard to stop. I don’t think Pasquale played poorly, but we had some guys in front of him that made it tough on him.”
Former Colorado Avalanche and two-time Swiss Olympic goalie David Aebischer took over for Pasquale in the IceCaps’ goal at the 13:42 mark of the second period and allowed two goals on 12 shots during his first foray into Calder Cup Playoffs action this season.
“Tonight’s game shows the importance of getting guys in front of the net,” added Kostka. “We had great traffic in front of the net. I don’t know if either of their goalies played badly, but there were definitely a few that they didn’t see.”
Given that the Admirals captured their largest win of the playoffs in terms of goal differential in Game 1, and that Norfolk has outscored its opponents 12-2 while winning each of its last three playoff games, there wasn’t much negative to take from Thursday evening.
If anything, a disappointment for the Admirals was the absence of Alex Killorn from the lineup. Killorn, the AHL’s leader in playoff points among rookies, missed his first game of the playoffs with an undisclosed injury, despite having been a full participant in the team’s morning skate on Thursday.
However, despite Killorn’s absence, Thursday was an overwhelmingly positive night for the Admirals, who will look to take a 2-0 series lead on Saturday night in Norfolk.
“The final score tonight doesn’t mean a lot,” said defenseman Jean-Philippe Cote. “If we won 3-2 or 10-1; they all count the same on the sheet at this time of year. We’ll appreciate what we did tonight and then just start focusing on the next game, tomorrow.”
Following Game 2 on Saturday, the series will shift for three straight games in St. John’s, beginning next Monday night in Maritime Canada.