Entering Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals, the main question facing the Norfolk Admirals was how they’d react to 10 days off against an opponent, the Toronto Marlies, which they had never faced once in franchise history.
The Admirals answered all the questions and passed their first final-series test with flying colors on Friday night, using a 3-1 win to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series that will decide who minor-league hockey’s top team for the 2011-12 season will be.
“We played well,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “We took some penalties that drained our energy at times, but especially at 5-on-5, I thought we were the aggressors and carried the play.”
Just as was the case in the Eastern Conference Finals against the St. John’s IceCaps, the main ingredient to the Admirals’ recipe of success in Game 1 was Dustin Tokarski.
Tokarski stopped 23 of the 24 Marlies shots he saw, helping Norfolk protect a 2-0 third-period lead to produce the series’ first win.
In fact, prior to a goal by former Lightning prospect Carter Ashton goal that shrunk the Admirals’ lead to 2-1 early in the third period, Tokarski had not been scored upon in 203:43 dating back to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against St. John’s, leaving the Lightning’s highest-rated goalie prospect 4:01 shy of Marcel Paille’s 50-year old record for the longest shutout streak in Calder Cup Playoff history.
“Tokarski was good all night,” said Cooper. “Ashton was his buddy when he was here and I’m sure Dustin might want to have that one back. But he was solid and had his angles. He just sits there and lets pucks hit him, and that worked again for him tonight.”
Also similar to the Eastern Conference Finals, Tokarski was at his best while Norfolk was shorthanded, as he helped his teammates kill all 10 of the Marlies’ power plays on a night where Jon Cooper admitted his team lacked some discipline.
“We’re not going to survive this series if we continue to take as many penalties as we did tonight,” explained Cooper. “Warranted or not, we put ourselves into some poor situations. But our guys have the will it takes to kill penalties, and they luckily were able to do it tonight.”
While the Marlies couldn’t score on the power play, Norfolk got what proved to be the night’s game-winning goal while on one if its five man advantages, as 2012 AHL All-Rookie forward Tyler Johnson scorched a one-timer over Marlies netminder Ben Scrivens’ shoulder at 10:03 of the second period, on a sequence where Mark Barberio and Cory Conacher both drew assists.
Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson each had a goal and an assist in Game 1 on Friday (Photo by John Wright / Norfolk Admirals)
Johnson and Conacher, also a member of the AHL’s 2012 All-Rookie team, also combined on the play that produced Norfolk’s first goal of the evening, as Conacher opened the series’ scoring 12:21 into the first period on a beautiful crisscross play where he and Johnson skated the puck all the way up the ice to lead up to Conacher’s wrist shot from the left circle that eluded Ben Scrivens’ outstretched glove hand.
“This is the Finals and our best players were our best players,” said Cooper. “Cory Conacher was a deserving MVP of the league who had only one goal in 14 playoff games before tonight. But he got a big one tonight and was outstanding. Tyler Johnson’s goal on the power play was key, especially because Toronto has been one of the best penalty-killing teams all year and because it put us ahead by two.”
Johnson’s and Conacher’s goals were the only goals that Marlies goalie Ben Scrivens allowed on a night he made 39 saves, as Norfolk’s final goal of the game came when Brandon Segal poked in a shorthanded, empty-net goal with 19 seconds left in the third period at a time where Toronto had a 6-on-4 man-power advantage with Evan Oberg serving a two-minute penalty for clearing the puck over the glass and delaying the game.
“We did what it took tonight to kill penalties,” said Admirals captain Mike Angelidis. “We were stepping up and blocking shots down to the end, because this is the time of year you need guys to step up to do special things.”
Although the final seconds couldn’t tick off the clock without more of the very nasty game’s many skirmishes, Segal’s fourth goal of the playoffs was what, for all intents and purposes, salted away Norfolk’s seventh straight playoff victory.
The Admirals’ look to get their eighth straight playoff victory and take a 2-0 advantage in the Calder Cup Finals tomorrow night, before the series shifts venues for three straight games in Toronto next week.