The Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, eliminated the Connecticut Whale in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs last weekend and begin their Eastern Conference Finals series on Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets’ top affiliate, the second-seeded St. John’s IceCaps.
Here are a few major storylines to follow as the Admirals and IceCaps face off in a best-of-seven series that will decide the Eastern Conference’s representative in the Calder Cup Finals.
1. These are the Eastern Conference’s top two teams:
In every way, the Admirals and IceCaps are the Eastern Conference’s top two teams. Either Norfolk or St. John’s held the conference’s top spot throughout the regular season, with the IceCaps getting off to a strong start and sitting in first place until they were overtaken by the Admirals on Feb. 26. While the IceCaps still won their division by a whopping 11 points, St. John’s lost 24 standings points to Norfolk during the season’s final two months, with the Admirals using their 28-game winning streak to go from being five points behind the IceCaps to being 19 points ahead.
2. These teams don’t like each other:
When the teams most recently met in March, the Admirals captured wins 21 and 22 of their winning streak by sweeping a two-game series against St. John’s in Norfolk. The Admirals limited the IceCaps to just one goal during the two games, which also featured a devastating open-ice body check where Norfolk’s Radko Gudas flattened St. John’s captain Jason Jaffray. A bloodied Jaffray left the ice following Gudas’ hit and hasn’t seen any game action in two months since.
3. Who’s in the Admirals’ goal:
When the Admirals were tied at two wins apiece with the Connecticut Whale in the second round, Norfolk head coach Jon Cooper elected to insert Jaroslav Janus into the Admirals’ crease in favor of Dustin Tokarski. Since the change, Janus won both of his starts and stopped 52 of 53 shots, while recording his first career playoff shutout in Game 5. Janus’ two wins give him 18 victories in his last 19 starts dating back to the regular season, while Tokarski, the AHL’s regular-season wins leader (32), still has a 4-2 playoff record and an impressive .907 playoff save percentage.
4. Alex The Greats:
Norfolk’s top two playoff scorers, Alexandre Picard and Alex Killorn, have gone from making minimal impacts in the regular season to becoming unstoppable forces in the playoffs. Picard, a center who scored six goals during an injury-plagued regular season, has matched his regular-season goal total in just 10 playoff games, tying him for the AHL’s playoff goal-scoring lead and giving him the highest point total (12) of any player remaining in the playoffs. Killorn, a rookie who joined the Admirals in March following the conclusion of his collegiate career at Harvard, leads AHL rookies with eight playoff assists and 11 playoff points, after scoring just two goals in 10 regular-season games. If Picard and Killorn continue to excel at using their big bodies to forecheck and cycle the puck, it’s hard to picture a scenario where the two power forwards won’t continue to rack up points against St. John’s.
5.Norfolk’s speedy rookies regaining their mojo:
In the series-deciding Game 6 against Connecticut, Jon Cooper assembled a new line that positioned rookie Tyler Johnson between rookies Ondrej Palat and Cory Conacher. The trio seemed to find instant chemistry and combined to produce the third-period goal that sent Game 6 into overtime, indicating that Johnson and Conacher could be poised to break out of offensive slumps against the IceCaps. Given that Norfolk is the league’s third-highest scoring playoff team despite receiving just three playoff goals from Conacher and Johnson, all signs point to the Admirals’ offense becoming a nearly unstoppable force if the Palat-Johnson-Conacher line continues its success.
6. St. John’s active defensemen:
More than any other team in the AHL, the IceCaps receive sizable offensive contributions from their defensemen. Highly-touted prospect Paul Postma (1g, 7a) and former Detroit Red Wing Derek Meech (4g, 4a) are the league’s two highest-scoring playoff defensemen, with Brock Trotter (10 points) and Aaron Gagnon (9 points) being the only IceCap forwards with higher playoff point totals than the team’s pair of offensively-potent defensemen.
7. The series’ travel schedule:
The Admirals and IceCaps will play the series’ first two games in Norfolk on Thursday and Saturday, before facing off in St. John’s on Monday and Tuesday nights for Game 3 and Game 4. While teams are used to playing three games in four nights, these teams will do so while undertaking a monster travel schedule that requires an overnight flight to St. John’s on Saturday. Given that Norfolk and St. John’s are twice as far apart as Tampa and Philadelphia, the team that is least affected by its 2,000-mile flight will have a huge opportunity to take over during the series’ middle stages.
Eastern Conference Finals Schedule:
Game 1 - Thurs., May 17 - St. John’s at Norfolk, 7:15 ET
Game 2 - Sat., May 19 - St. John’s at Norfolk, 8:00 ET
Game 3 - Mon., May 21 - Norfolk at St. John’s, 6:00 ET
Game 4 - Tue., May 22 - Norfolk at St. John’s, 6:00 ET
*Game 5 - Sat., May 26 - Norfolk at St. John’s, 6:00 ET
*Game 6 - Tue., May 29 - St. John’s at Norfolk, 7:15 ET
*Game 7 - Wed., May 30 - St. John’s at Norfolk, 7:15 ET