Although the outcome of the best-of-seven series that Norfolk currently leads 2-0 in remains in question, the Admirals will return home next week no matter the outcome of the series’ next three games, either to resume the series in Virginia or while being in possession of the franchise’s first-ever Calder Cup.
But although the outcome of the next three games will decide whether the Admirals finish their road schedule on a positive note or not, it’s impossible to ignore how much the successes that Norfolk has already had on the road this season have affected the Lightning’s top affiliate’s rise to the top of the American Hockey League.
“I feel like that when we go on the road, it gives us a great chance to just be together more,” said Admirals captain Mike Angelidis. “On the road, there are no other distractions and all you have to do is worry about playing the games. It also gives us more of a chance to spend time alone as a team, which is something that we love to do.”
On the road, there are no other distractions and all you have to do is worry about playing the games. - Mike Angelidis
“I can’t imagine that any team has the type of chemistry that we have,” added rookie Tyler Johnson. “We have a team with a bunch of beauties and it’s so much fun for us to just be together and play.”
When the Admirals play Game 3 of the Finals on Thursday night, they’ll do so holding a 6-1 road record in this year’s playoffs, while having won 19 of their last 20 road games dating back to the regular season and not having lost consecutive road games in seven months, stretching back to a pair of consecutive road losses early last Nov.
Although the Admirals’ road play has vastly improved over the course of the season, the team itself actually cites a trip they went on to St. John’s, Newfoundland during training camp as being the time when the team started to gel and find its identity.
“We played in a preseason tournament where we won two out of three games and were awarded a championship Cup,” said Angelidis of the Admirals’ preseason camp in St. John’s. “But more than that, we just did a lot of things together as a team and had some fun together, which I think helped get the year off to a good start. I especially remember this time when we all went paintballing together where we really had a lot of fun.”
Angelidis wasn’t the only Admiral to recall the team’s preseason paintball outing, although the team’s official paintball aficionado, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, remembers himself ending up on the wrong end of the stick despite his being the only Norfolk player to carry his own personal paintball gun—which he bought on EBay—into the game.
“At one point, I was just running by myself and Pic (Alexandre Picard) was shooting at me from a little house, so I couldn’t shoot back,” recalled Labrie. “There was all this fog in my visor and I lost my helmet, so I had to protect my face. Then I think Ticker (Dustin Tokarski) started shooting at me, too. And I couldn’t see anything the whole time. To be in a great paintball war like that showed me right away that this would be a team that would go to battle together.”
But for all the Admirals’ chemistry, it’s impossible to say that the team’s fondness of one other is the only reason for their road success this season. At the end of the day, no matter how much a group of players gets along, they aren’t going to win games if they don’t have the talent.
And these Admirals have the talent.
However, with the team in search of one more successful road trip where it could capture the Calder Cup championship, the Admirals will have to play in arguably the toughest road environment and on the biggest stage of their careers.
After all, the Admirals’ final road trip of the season is to a city, Toronto, that has a larger population (2,615,060) than all of the other road cities that Norfolk has played in this year, combined. Meanwhile, Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals will be the first championship-series game played in Toronto, where hockey is revered on the same level as politics and religion, in 45 years, with no Toronto-based team having made it to a championship round since the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in the final year of the Original Six in 1967.
The close-knit Admirals team hits the road one last time this season for Thursday night's Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals.
“This is a business trip for us,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “Even though being in Toronto puts us on the big stage, we have guys who have played under pressure before. Tyler Johnson won a World Juniors gold medal playing for the United States in front of a very hostile Canadian crowd. And Dustin Tokarski has played in front of 20,000 people as Canada’s starting goalie, where anything less than a gold medal would be a failure. We have guys who’ve been on these stages before, even though I expect these games in Toronto will be absolutely packed and the people will be really into it.”
Without doubt, Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum will have an electric atmosphere for Game 3 on Thursday. However, if the Admirals can do their part to get off to a good start, they’ll make great strides to eliminate the Toronto crowd’s energy, which according to the hometown media, is something that the Marlies have been able to do this season with no equal.
“Toronto has had the benefit of going into sparsely filled rinks and quickly taking out what little crowd atmosphere there has been,” according to one Toronto newspaper before the series. “The Scope in Norfolk won’t likely sell out either. Ricoh Coliseum is on course to sell out all three home games next week.”
Given that certain Toronto media outlets have perhaps underestimated the passion that this Admirals’ playoff run has inspired—the series’ first two games in Norfolk were packed to the gills with a lively crowd—Norfolk will have the chance to turn the tide water against the Marlies again if it can capture a pair of wins in Toronto this week.
“We just can’t worry about all the stuff going on around us,” said Angelidis. “If we just don’t focus on what’s going on around us, play our game and keep it simple; we’ll be fine.”
Of course, the Admirals playing their ‘A” game and capturing two of the next three games will give them the Calder Cup on Toronto’s home ice, with the series’ next three games scheduled to be played this Thursday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon.
If the series continues beyond this weekend, Game 6 and a possible Game 7 would both be played in Norfolk next week.