Whenever professional hockey teams go on long playoffs runs, they usually get contributions from throughout their lineup.
Invariably, just as was the case with Sean Bergenheim and the Lightning last season, a player who flew completely below the radar during the regular season can emerge as one of a team’s top contributors in the pressure-elevated environment of the playoffs.
Through the first three games of the Calder Cup Playoffs, center Alexandre Picard is putting in the strongest bid to be the 2012 playoffs’ surprise hero for the Norfolk Admirals.
Picard leads the Admirals with four goals and six points through the playoffs’ first three games, trailing Jerry D’Amigo of the Toronto Marlies by one for the AHL’s playoff goal-scoring lead.
“Pic is an absolute menace down low,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “You can throw the word ‘greasy’ around, too. He can be a major thorn in teams’ sides and I know he’s on his game when he’s under the skin of the opposition. He seemingly has an innate ability to do that on a nightly basis.”
Although his name may sound familiar, the Admirals’ Alexandre Picard is no relation to the defenseman named Alexandre Picard who played for the Lightning during the 2007-08 season.
Norfolk’s Picard is a former 2004 first-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets who found his way to the Lightning organization last summer, after having his career curtailed by a series of injuries.
This season, Picard was again hampered by injuries and was limited to just 42 regular-season games, following a 2010-11 season when the 6-foot-2, 200-pound center led the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage with 24 goals.
“It’s been a tough year for Pic,” added Cooper. “He was getting in five or 10 games in a row and then getting injured. I felt for him because it was hard for him to get his rhythm this year. I know he’s a good player and he has found his game in the playoffs. We absolutely would not be up 2-1 without him.”
Picard had a goal and an assist during the Admirals’ 5-2 win in Game 3 on Wednesday, using his goal to give Norfolk a comfortable two-goal advantage in the game’s final six minutes, shortly after the Monarchs nearly tied the game at 3-3.
Picard’s two-point Game 3 came as he was centering a newly-formed line with Brandon Segal and Alex Killorn which tormented Manchester’s defense all night. Segal scored both the night’s first and last goal for the Admirals, while Killorn contributed two assists that give him four helpers through the series’ first three games.
Picard in action during a regular season game vs. the Binghamton Senators (Photo by John Wright)
“All three of us are big guys,” said Picard. “That makes it easier for us to manage the puck down low. So far, I think we’ve done pretty well.”
Picard’s new line wasn’t the only newly-formed trio on Wednesday night, as Jon Cooper elected to shuffle his lines after Manchester’s 5-2 win in Game 2 last Saturday.
The Admirals’ new line combinations have put captain Mike Angelidis on a line between Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Cory Conacher, while Trevor Smith is centering a line that’s flanked by Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik.
Philip-Michael Devos and Michel Ouellet round out the Admirals’ core of forwards, which is usually one player less than the 12-man forward unit that Guy Boucher usually ices with the Lightning, given Jon Cooper’s tendency to dress seven defensemen per game.
“I like to keep guys fresh on defense,” said Cooper. “I change things a lot during the season and playing seven defensemen gives us a different look. During the season, I thought we were most effective in games when we used seven defensemen.”
During the regular season and in the playoffs, the Admirals usually have Scott Jackson and Radko Gudas as their top shutdown defensive pairing, while Mark Barberio is paired with Evan Oberg and Jean-Philippe-Cote is playing with Mike Kostka.
Jeff Dimmen was normally Norfolk’s seventh defenseman during the regular season, but has only seen limited game action since the Lightning sent Keith Aulie to Norfolk following the end of the NHL season.
Seemingly, the only potential lineup change before Game 4 on Friday would be the possible return of Tyler Johnson from injury. Although Jon Cooper has hinted that Johnson’s undisclosed injury isn’t serious, the 2012 AHL All-Rookie center has been sidelined for the last two games after heading to the locker room and not returning during Game 1 last Friday.
With a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five series, Norfolk could eliminate Manchester with a win this Friday night and become the first AHL team solely affiliated with the Lightning to ever advance in the Calder Cup Playoffs.