Following Pierre-Cedric Labrie’s overtime goal in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night, the Norfolk Admirals’ momentum was at an all-time high.
The Admirals upped their team’s momentum even further on Tuesday, as Norfolk played nearly a perfect game and got a 4-0 win over the St. John’s IceCaps in Game 4, sweeping the teams’ best-of-seven series and advancing to the Calder Cup Finals.
“We were outstanding tonight,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “When you get in a position to close a team out, it’s so hard to do that and I think the guys didn’t want this to go any further. We were really focused early and the guys just all did a heck of a job tonight.”
While nearly every aspect of the Admirals’ game was working well during the entire Eastern Conference Finals, it’s hard to say that any Norfolk player performed better than goaltender Dustin Tokarski.
Tokarski stopped all 29 IceCaps shots he saw on Tuesday, earning his second straight shutout in a series that he completed having only surrendered two total goals, while not getting beaten by any St. John’s shooter for the series’ final 160 minutes.
“As a team, we committed to playing defense in this series,” added Cooper. “When it comes down to it, we blocked a shot when a shot needed to be blocked. And if that shot got through, Tokarski was a wall.”
Perhaps even more impressively, Tokarski’s dominant Eastern Conference Finals performance came after he was benched in favor of Jaroslav Janus for the team’s final two second-round wins against the Connecticut Whale, which Norfolk won while only allowing one total Whale goal.
The result of Norfolk’s improved defensive efforts is that the Admirals will enter the Calder Cup Finals next week riding a six-game winning streak where they’ve outscored their opponents by a clip of 20-3.
“I think we’ve gotten better as the playoffs have gone along,” said Cooper. “Playing Manchester in the first round was a physically demanding series, and I think that changed our mindset for the rest of the playoffs. Connecticut was the same way and got a few wins against us, which I think put a little more desperation into our game. We were set up so well for this round because of the battles we had in the first two rounds.”
The only part of Game 4 where it seemed like the IceCaps had a chance was during a span in the first period when St. John’s had nearly six straight minutes of power-play time after AHL MVP Cory Conacher received both a double-minor penalty and minor penalty in the game’s opening 10 minutes.
However, the Admirals killed the IceCaps’ three straight power plays, while killing all seven of St. John’s’ chances in Game 4 and 24 of the IceCaps’ 25 power plays in the series.
“I really can’t say enough about our penalty kill,” said Cooper. “When you get your PK going, you can really suck the life out of another team and I think especially our early kills did that tonight.”
After the Admirals’ penalty-killing unit held the IceCaps in check early in the first period, Norfolk’s offense went to work, starting when defenseman Evan Oberg wristed a shot over St. John’s goalie Eddie Pasquale’s glove hand from just inside the blue line with 4:45 left in the first period.
“It was a turning point when we got our first goal,” said Cooper. “We had just been down a man for literally almost six straight minutes and they didn’t even get a sniff against us. When we got our first goal, you could just see the air completely come out of their tires.”
Tyler Johnson scored the first of two Admirals power-play goals two minutes after Oberg’s game-opening goal, with Trevor Smith redirecting a Pierre-Cedric Labrie shot past Pasquale to make the score 3-0 just under two minutes into the second period, and Brandon Segal capping off the night’s scoring by getting his third goal of the playoffs with 10:32 remaining in the third period.
All of the Admirals’ goals came against Eddie Pasquale, who despite allowing four goals in a game for the second time in the series, actually played well on a night his team was outshot 42-29.
But the fact of the matter is that despite Pasquale’s yeoman work in goal, the Atlantic Division champion IceCaps were badly outplayed in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Admirals.
Norfolk’s four-game sweep of St. John’s improved its record to 11-3 in this year’s playoffs, while giving the Admirals a record of 39-3 in their last 42 games dating back to Feb. 5
Norfolk’s final-round opponent will be either the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, or the Edmonton Oilers’ top affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.
Currently, the second-seeded Marlies lead the first-seeded Barons 2-1 in their best-of-seven series, with Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals scheduled to be played at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto on Wednesday night.
Since the Admirals will have a few days before they’ll find out who their next opponent is, Norfolk’s next task is just staying sharp and getting healthy.
As of now, the only significant injury the Admirals are dealing with is that of defenseman Scott Jackson, who didn’t play in Game 4 after getting hit just inside the ear while sliding to block a slap shot in Game 3.
“We’re going to get a few days to rest,” added Cooper. “We’ve played a lot a lot of games and have a few other guys that are a little dinged up that need to get rest. We’ll rest and enjoy this for a few days, and when we find out who we play next, we’ll prepare at that time to be ready to go for The Finals.”