At the start of last week, the Admirals had lost seven consecutive AHL games. They were embarking on what coach Darren Rumble described as a “boot camp” approach to practice that featured grueling on-ice workouts in the morning and video study in the afternoon.
A scheduled off day on Sunday was canceled and so intense were the week's skating drills that slivers of Scope arena's concrete floor were occasionally visible through the ice once the players staggered to the locker room. Forward Bracken Kearns said he'd never worked as hard outside of training camp.
Last Wednesday, forward Zenon Konopka was so incensed by the situation that he took it out on teammates during drills. The captain hacked and whacked his way to the net and into the corners before huddling his peers at one end of the ice and reading them the riot act.
“I just wanted everyone to understand it was rock bottom now but that there were better days ahead if we worked hard,” Konopka said. “I wanted everyone to understand it wouldn't continue if we started to win.”
Mission accomplished. Norfolk came out Friday and took it to a visiting Rockford IceHogs club that had won the teams' first two meetings in Illinois last month. The 5-2 victory saw Admirals enforcer Brent Henley ejected for head-butting and teammate Brandon Segal tossed for hitting from behind in the first period, carryover from the rival teams scuffling at center ice during warmups. Konopka and Andrew Hutchinson, the reigning AHL defenseman of the year, broke scoring droughts but the teams' irritation with each other was the main topic of postgame conversation.
“There's some bad blood between us,” said Norfolk defenseman Matt Smaby, whose squad notched its first home victory in six tries. “I think that's pretty evident. We both play hard and things happen when that's the case.”
The disharmony peaked with 26 seconds to play when the Admirals' Radek Smolenak flew through the Rockford end and before crashing into goaltender Corey Crawford, who played for Norfolk two years ago. The Admirals later contended that an IceHog hooked and steered Smolenak into Crawford, but the netminder was flattened before standing and landing a wild swing of his stick to the back of Smolenak's head.
Smolenak and Rockford's Jordan Hendry, another ex-Admiral, received fighting majors and Smolenak was slapped with one for charging after a 5-on-5 tussle precipitated by the collision. As the teams left the ice at game's end, Norfolk tough guy Jay Rosehill received a misconduct. Rumble wasn't thrilled with that penalty but was bullish on his team's overall feistiness.
“The way they played tonight is the way we wanted them to play and I was extremely pleased,” the coach said. “That's one game on the way back to .500 and we have to be ready for a big start tomorrow night.”
Rumble didn't get that start, as Norfolk fell behind, 1-0, Saturday, but Segal and Konopka scored within 12 seconds of each other early in the third period and Kearns added an empty-net goal for a 3-1 victory that had a season-high Scope crowd of 7,444 jumping up and down.
“This weekend is what we expected to have with this team right off the bat,” Kearns said. “We talked about how we wanted to play, but we didn't get it done until the last couple of games.”
The turnaround's poster child was Konopka, who was touted for his heart and talent after being signed by the Lightning last summer but flopped in his first 10 games. As on Friday, he was laid up for facial repairs after Saturday's game.
“I could have taken 200 stitches and still been happy after tonight,” said the captain, his swollen nose and upper lip each sporting string zippers and iodine stains. “This feels so good, even though we know we still have a ways to go.”
Konopka also fought Evan Brophey at center ice as Saturday's game ended. The veteran wears his heart on his sleeve and he said he wants his teammates to do the same.
“You want guys to blossom and come out of their cocoons and establish their identities.” he said. “At first, with so many new players, it's tough to put yourself out there emotionally. But gradually, you build trust with each other and we've come a long ways this week with that kind of thing.”
The Admirals (3-6-1-2) face a stiff challenge the next two weeks, playing seven games in 12 days during a New England road trip. The swing opens with a visit today to the Lowell (Mass.) Devils and continues Friday and Saturday with games in Manchester (N.H.) against the Monarchs.