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Core of rookies pace Norfolk Admirals’ win streak

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
There comes a moment that when things are going right for a hockey team, everything they try works out in their favor. If that moment hadn’t already come for the Norfolk Admirals during the first 17 games of their historic winning streak, it definitely happened during the third period of Sunday’s win against the Charlotte Checkers.

With the Admirals already leading 3-0 and well on their way to their 18th straight victory, the red-hot line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik hit the ice.

With the hometown Checkers controlling the puck in their own zone, Charlotte defenseman Ryan Donald sent a pass through the middle of the ice which Richard Panik swooped in to intercept.

With no defensemen between Panik and Checkers goalie Justin Peters, Panik unveiled a surprise deke in which he put his stick and the puck between his legs, faked to his right and fired the puck into the net’s left side, leaving Peters staring in befuddlement at what he just saw.

Unbeknownst to Peters, what he had just witnessed was that exact moment where absolutely everything was going in the Admirals’ favor.

The Admirals added another goal a minute later and won 5-0, completing a two-game sweep of a Checkers team which entered the set leading its division.

“The defenseman gave the puck away and it was just me and the goalie,” said Panik. “I tried that move a few years ago in an exhibition game, but never in a regular-season game. I wasn’t even thinking of using that move again, but everything happened so quickly and I did it. I’ve never scored a goal like that in a regular-season game before.”

Panik, a 21-year-old Slovakian right wing, has been one of the most improved Admirals as the season has gone along. Often criticized for bouts of inconsistency in the defensive zone during his junior years in the Ontario Hockey League, Panik has matured in Norfolk and blossomed into one of the key forwards on the first-place Admirals.

“There have been growing pains for our team this season,” Admirals head coach Jon Cooper said. “If you look back at some of our losses earlier this season, it was almost as if other teams were outproing us. Fifty games later, our guys are outproing other teams. It’s a tribute to how much our young guys have improved in a short time.”

Panik has played his best hockey this season on a line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat which has been dubbed as the Admirals’ “Kid Line,” with all three members in their first years of professional hockey.

“All three guys can skate, they all have skill and they all compete hard,” Cooper added. “When you have all three of those things working together, it makes it a pretty tough trio to defend against.”

Besides their obvious skillsets, it’s the rapid improvements that each player has made that has the Lightning’s management team so excited. Because while Panik was a high draft pick (second round/52nd overall) in 2009, neither Johnson nor Palat were ever pegged by the hockey world to become the players they have already become.

“Steve (Yzerman), Julien (BriseBois), Al Murray and the entire scouting staff have done a fantastic job at finding great players,” Cooper added. “The whole organization is really reaping the benefits of it right now.”

Johnson, an undrafted free-agent signee, was the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week last week. He’s currently on an Admirals franchise-record, eight-game goal-scoring streak, and with 59 points on the season, he trails only teammate Cory Conacher’s 71 points in the AHL’s rookie scoring race.

Palat, the left wing on the “Kid Line,” has overcome odds nearly as daunting as Tyler Johnson’s. Only three players were taken after Ondrej Palat in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, when the Lightning snagged him in the seventh round, 208th overall.

Although Palat’s 23 points are fewer than both Johnson’s 59 and Panik’s 37, he’s started scoring more as the season has progressed, with 13 of his points coming during Norfolk’s 18-game winning streak.

Defensively, Palat has also developed into a relentless puck hound who wins battles for loose pucks in the corners, despite being just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds.

“He’s probably one of the best positional hockey players that I’ve had in years,” Cooper said of Palat. “He’s always in the right spot, he backchecks the right way and he angles players the right way. If you had a video tape following him around, you could teach a hockey school.”

With the “Kid Line” gelling on all cylinders and fellow rookie Cory Conacher leading the AHL with 34 goals, the Admirals have a 10-point lead in the Eastern Conference standings and present an element of attack which no other AHL team can compare with.

“Our streak has really taken off because our group of rookies,” Cooper said. “Some of these guys started the season as healthy scratches and are now playing in every situation. A lot of these guys are now only rookies in name.”

Having combined for 23 goals and 40 assists during the Admirals’ 18-game win streak, the “Kid Line” will look to maintain its pace when Norfolk begins a seven-game homestand against the Albany Devils on Friday night.

A win Friday would give the Admirals the longest win streak in the history of professional hockey and break the record for the most points in a season by an AHL team solely affiliated with the Lightning. The previous record, 93 points, was set by last season’s Admirals.

“The steps we’re trying to take as an organization are to get these guys ready to put on a Tampa Bay Lightning uniform,” Cooper added. “The way they’re playing right now, we have a lot of guys right on course to do just that.”

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