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An admirable season for Norfolk’s star blueliner

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
Earlier this week, Norfolk Admirals defenseman Mark Barberio was named as the winner of the Eddie Shore Award, which is presented annually to the American Hockey League’s top defenseman.

Barberio, a 22-year-old in his second professional season, becomes the first Admiral to ever win the Eddie Shore Award, which is a trophy that four current NHL defensemen—Marc-Andre Gragnani, Johnny Boychuk, Sheldon Brookbank and Niklas Kronwall—have won over the last seven seasons.

“It’s a huge honor to win this award,” said Barberio. “Especially when you look at the history of some of the guys who have won it in the past. To even be put in their category is very special.”

Of all Barberio’s skills, it’s his abilities to skate, quickly move the puck and contribute offensively which stand out the most. He leads AHL defensemen with 47 assists and 60 points, entering the 2011-12 regular season’s final three games having nearly doubled the 31-point total he produced last season.

“He obviously has great offensive abilities,” said Barberio’s defensive partner, Evan Oberg. “He communicates so well on the ice, too. He’s a special player on the ice and it makes my job as his partner much easier.”

With Barberio at the helm of the Admirals’ power play, Norfolk has the AHL’s second-highest success rate when up a man at 21.9 percent, while having gone 31-of-126 (24.6 percent) during the team’s current 25-game winning streak.

“Mark definitely quarterbacks our power play,” added Oberg. “He does a great job of just getting pucks to the net. When you start getting pucks to the front of the net as much as he gets them there, good things always seem to happen.”

But while Barberio’s offensive skills have garnered him accolades since his junior days with the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats, the Eddie Shore Award is given to the AHL’s best defenseman, which signifies an overall growth in the Montreal native’s all-around game.

“When you say Mark Barberio’s name, everybody thinks offense,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “But look at his plus/minus from his rookie year (-1) and compare it to his second year (+25). His defensive game has really taken a step up this year. His offensive numbers will always be there, but I think people should really be paying more attention to his plus/minus and his work in the defensive end.”

As a unit, Norfolk’s defense has allowed only a combined four goals during its last five wins, lowering the team’s goals-against average to an Eastern Conference best 2.40 goals-against per game.

“We’ve been sticking to our system,” said Barberio. “I think we have a good system and for us, it’s just the matter of execution. We’ve been executing our system really well for a while now and it’s paying off.”

While the Admirals hold the league’s top-rated offense by a comfortable 25-goal margin in the season’s final week, the team’s improved defense could perhaps be the key for Norfolk to make an extended run in the Calder Cup playoffs, which are set to get underway next week.

“Winning is a sign that your players are getting better,” said Cooper. “We know we’re going to get everybody’s best game in the playoffs. But if we can keep winning, it will be a great way to prepare our guys for the next stages in their careers.”

Before the Admirals’ playoff opener, they will finish the regular season with a three-game road trip to Albany, Binghamton and Adirondack this weekend.

With a record of 52-18-1-2 and 107 points, Norfolk has already clinched the AHL’s best regular-season record and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

However, three more wins this weekend would extend the Admirals’ winning streak to 28 games, potentially giving Norfolk the chance to enter the playoffs without having suffered a defeat in the regular season’s final 10 weeks.

“After so many games, the streak has obviously built a life of its own,” said Barberio. “But for us, the biggest thing is to make sure we use this weekend to build momentum going into the playoffs. We want to use these last three games to make sure that when the playoffs start next week, we’re rolling the same way we are right now.”

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