Having compiled a league-best 113 points during the regular season, a pro-hockey record 28-game winning streak and having won eight straight playoff games entering Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals, it can be safely said that the Norfolk Admirals have been the American Hockey League’s best team this season.
But what happened on Thursday night at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto was pure luck.
In a game that was knotted at 0-0 nine minutes into overtime, defenseman Mike Kostka fired in an innocent looking dump-in that resulted in one of the more bizarre scenes in pro-hockey history, with the puck that Kostka meant to ring around the right-wing boards catching a stanchion, changing direction and rolling into Toronto’s vacated net to give Norfolk an exhilarating 1-0 win in Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals.
“From the win streak to some of the games we’ve played, there have been things this year that I never thought I’d see in my life,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “When something like this happens, your stomach is sick for their goalie (Ben Scrivens) while being so happy that what happened went in our favor. I think we earned the win with how we played, but what happened at the end was a very lucky bounce.”
“I literally shot it in, saw it hit the glass and saw it roll in,” said Kostka. “I didn’t even know what happened at first and I didn’t start celebrating until I saw the guys start rushing off the bench. Everything just happened in a flash.”
Michel Ouellet goes up against the boards with the Toronto defense. (Photo by Graig Abel)
But although the fluky goal scored by Kostka, a native of the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, gives the Admirals a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Calder Cup Finals and a chance to win the AHL’s championship on Saturday afternoon, it all might not have been possible if Norfolk hadn’t survived what was almost a game-costing blunder of its own a few minutes earlier in the extra session where the Admirals were handed a penalty for too-many-men-on-the-ice after defenseman Jean-Philippe Cote took a shot with one of his teammates still on the ice in the process of completing a line change.
“We got a little too excited there,” said Cooper. “The puck came so perfectly to Cote. You can tell a player anything you want about not playing the puck there, but it’s so hard and 99 percent of the time when the puck is coming at them, it’s their instinct to do so. It was absolutely a penalty, without a doubt.”
The Admirals responded to the adversity by killing off the Marlies’ power play, which is something that Norfolk has successfully done on 19 of 20 opportunities in the series.
“It’s a matter of us continuing to play our system,” said goaltender Dustin Tokarski. “The guys have just been buying in and blocking so many shots in front of me. They’ve just been playing awesome and it makes life as a goalie so much easier.”
But although his teammates have made his life easier, Dustin Tokarski has equally made life easier for his Admirals teammates.
With a .69 goals-against average, .974 save percentage and three shutouts since the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tokarski’s Game 3 win puts him on a personal seven-game winning streak since he returned to the crease after Jaroslav Janus secured each of Norfolk’s final two second-round wins against the Connecticut Whale.
“He’s (Tokarski) had a lot of good games in the playoffs,” said Cooper. “If you judge them based on the circumstances, with us being in the Finals and playing the best team in the West, I guess tonight being the closest to the end makes it his best game of the playoffs.”
For the Lightning’s top minor-league affiliate, the aftermath of Thursday night’s win that was both fantastic and shocking is that they’ll enter Saturday afternoon’s game in Toronto with a chance to become the first team ever affiliated with Tampa Bay to win the Calder Cup, which has been awarded annually since 1936 and is one of professional hockey’s most prestigious trophies behind the Stanley Cup.
“We know there’s a long way to go,” said Tokarski. “Game 4 we know is always the hardest one to win, just as we saw last night with Los Angeles and the Devils. We just have to come out and take it period by period to give ourselves a chance to win.”
If the Marlies are able to win and prolong their season on Saturday, Norfolk would have a second crack at winning the Calder Cup in Toronto on Sunday afternoon, while also having potentially two chances to win the championship on its home ice next week.
“After we win a game of this magnitude, I don’t think there’s much else to be said,” added Cooper. “I told the players to go eat with the guys, see their families and enjoy this tonight. But when we get back to the rink tomorrow morning, it’ll be game on.”