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Admirals/Connecticut Whale second-round series preview

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Norfolk Admirals became the first AHL team solely affiliated with the Lightning to ever advance in the Calder Cup Playoffs when they won their first-round series against the Manchester Monarchs last Friday night.

The Admirals begin their second-round series on Wednesday night against the New York Rangers’ top affiliate, the sixth-seeded Connecticut Whale.

With a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals on the line, here are a few major storylines to follow for Norfolk’s Eastern Conference Semifinals series against Connecticut:

Can the Admirals’ top line maintain its pace?:
The Admirals used an overtime goal from Alex Killorn in Game 4 to eliminate the Manchester Monarchs, three games to one, last Friday night. Killorn’s goal was assisted by his center, Alexandre Picard, who is tied for second amongst all AHL players with eight points (4g, 4a) through one playoff round. Meanwhile, Killorn is tied for seventh in AHL playoff scoring with six points (1g, 5a) and the left wing that plays with Picard and Killorn, Brandon Segal, had an impressive two-goal effort in Game 3 against Manchester. Trevor Smith also played a major offensive role for the Admirals in the first round, compiling six points (2g, 4a) after chipping in four points in 16 games for the Lightning this season.

Cory Conacher’s goal-scoring ability:
The Admirals averaged 3.5 goals per game in the first round despite not receiving any tallies from the AHL’s reigning MVP and rookie of the year, Cory Conacher. While Conacher did maintain a point-per-game pace by notching four assists against Manchester, he has the chance to significantly boost Norfolk’s offense, should he recapture the form which led him to score an AHL-leading 39 goals during the regular season.

Tyler Johnson’s health:
Just as Cory Conacher was held without a goal in the first round, the Admirals’ second-leading goal scorer during the regular season, Tyler Johnson (31g), didn’t find the scoresheet either in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. In fact, Johnson hasn’t played since midway through Game 1 against the Monarchs, when he left the ice with what’s being called an upper-body injury. Since Norfolk head coach Jon Cooper has hinted that Johnson’s condition isn’t serious, the Admirals can probably stand to expect a second-round lineup return from the speedy center, who like his teammate Cory Conacher was named to the AHL’s 2012 All-Rookie Team.

Dustin Tokarski’s winning streak:
While the Admirals had their historic 29-game winning streak stopped by the Monarchs in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Dustin Tokarski’s personal winning streak is still intact entering Norfolk’s series with Connecticut. Tokarski went 2-0 against Manchester in the first round after leading AHL goalies with 32 regular-season wins, having now won a combined 15 straight regular-season and playoff games dating back to Feb. 5.

Connecticut’s stingy defense:
The Admirals led the Eastern Conference in goals-against average during the regular season, however, no AHL team was stingier than the Whale in the first round. Connecticut surrendered just three goals during its three-game sweep of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, while goaltender Cam Talbot led first-round goalies in goals-against average (0.92), save percentage (.977) and shutouts (2). Former NHL All-Star Wade Redden leads a core of Whale blueliners that also features former Lightning prospect Mike Vernace. Vernace joined the Whale following a deal between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers at the 2012 NHL trade deadline, after Tampa Bay sent Vernace to Florida this past Dec. as part of the deal that put Evan Oberg and Mike Kostka in Admirals uniforms.

The Whale’s newest members:
Although the Admirals earned a four-game season-series sweep over the Whale during the regular season, Connecticut has added a group of talented prospects to its roster from the junior ranks since its most recent loss to Norfolk on March 10. One of those additions, Marek Hrivik, led the Whale with four goals in their opening-round series against Bridgeport. Connecticut has also added each of the New York Rangers’ two most recent first-round draft picks, forward JT Miller (2011) and defenseman Dylan McIlrath (2010). Connecticut’s revamped roster also includes New York’s second-round pick from 2010, speedy forward Christian Thomas. Thomas is the son of former NHL player Steve Thomas, who, as the Lightning’s Director of Amateur Scouting, has been serving as one of Jon Cooper’s behind-the-bench assistant coaches in the playoffs, meaning that the Admirals/Whale series will pit father, Steve Thomas, against son, Christian Thomas, for the first time in their careers.

Which Whale Team Shows Up?:
Connecticut suffered through a winless Jan. that resulted in the Whale losing out on a division title to their in-state rival, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Although the Whale were only seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, they’re a team that played division-champion caliber hockey for most of the season which only slipped in the standings due to one bad month. The Whale responded to losing out on the Northeast Division title by sweeping the team that edged them out in the regular season in the playoffs’ first round.

The Series Are Now Best-Of-Seven:
Although the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs was contested in a best-of-five format, the three remaining rounds will each be a best-of-seven, similar to the NHL. The only difference between an NHL best-of-seven and an AHL best-of-seven is that in the AHL, the series will start with two games in Norfolk and then play three straight games in Connecticut, before possibly returning to Norfolk for both the possible Game 6 and Game 7 to end the series.

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