The Norfolk Admirals and Connecticut Whale entered Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals tied at two wins apiece, having played on completely even footing through the series’ first four games.
The main reason the teams weren’t equal in Wednesday’s Game 5 was because the Admirals were the team with Alexandre Picard in their lineup.
Picard scored the Admirals’ first two goals and Norfolk used a dominant team effort to get a 4-0 win over the Connecticut Whale on Wednesday night, taking a 3-2 lead in the teams’ best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals series.
“He’s (Picard) probably been our most effective player throughout the playoffs,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “The kid has been unbelievable for us. He’s been around the block and has put a lot of work in, and he deserves this.”
The “this” which Cooper was referring to are Picard’s new-found accolades. His two goals tonight bring him into a tie for the AHL’s playoff goal-scoring lead (6), while also tying him for the AHL’s playoff point-scoring lead (12).
“This time of the year is why we play hockey,” said Picard. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve been playing with some really good players, but I think it’s our whole team that has been stepping up.”
While Picard’s scoring two goals, setting up plays and throwing numerous body checks made him the game’s first star of Game 5, Admirals goalie Jaroslav Janus’ performance wasn’t that far behind Picard’s.
Janus, making his first start since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, stopped all 22 of the Whale’s shots while somewhat surprisingly getting the starting nod in favor of Dustin Tokarski, who had started each of Norfolk’s last six playoff games.
“Janus did play two games against Manchester,” said Cooper. “So, it’s not like putting Janus in was a strange doing for us. We have two goalies that we know can play and I thought changing it up could change the series’ momentum a little for us.”
Considering Janus held a lengthy winning streak prior to taking a loss in his most recent start against Manchester, the second-year pro’s Game 5 win was actually his 17th victory in his last 18 starts, which is a stretch during which he has a 1.50 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and two shutouts.
“Janus is an athlete,” added Cooper. “He has the talent and the drive, and he’s really starting to learn to play the position. He was exceptional tonight and the sky is the limit for him.”
While Janus was flawless in Game 5, so were the Admirals as a team.
Norfolk got a wraparound goal from Alexandre Picard in the first period and a rebound goal from Picard in the second period, while Ondrej Palat and Pierre-Cedric Labrie both scored goals out of net-mouth scrambles in the third period, in what was the Admirals’ largest win in terms of goal differential in this year’s playoffs.
“I thought Connecticut threw a real good punch in the first 10 minutes,” said Cooper. “But for the last 50 minutes, we were on. We started to have some prolonged shifts in their end and as the game went on, you could tell that they were tired. When you defend the whole game, you get tired and I think we fed off of their fatigue.”
The Admirals’ reward for their best effort of the playoffs is a 3-2 series lead, which they’ll take home to Norfolk with two chances to eliminate the Whale and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals this weekend.
“We’re a close team and we know what it takes to get it done,” added Cooper. “But I told the guys tonight that this series is far from over. We set the bar in terms of effort tonight, but we’re going to have to top this effort to knock these guys out.”
The Admirals’ first chance to eliminate the Whale will come in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Friday night, while the series’ possible Game 7 is scheduled for Sunday night in Virginia.