The American Hockey League’s playoffs begin on Thursday and the Lightning’s affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, are the overwhelming favorite to win the Calder Cup.
The Admirals finished the regular season with a league-best 113 points, ending the season on a pro-hockey record 28-game winning streak that’s 10 games longer than any other winning streak ever recorded in any league since hockey was professionalized in 1904.
Norfolk outscored its opponents by a clip of 107-42 during its winning streak, winning 15 of its games at home and 13 of them on the road.
But for all of the Admirals’ dominance, the team’s two most recent wins came by the narrowest of margins, requiring Norfolk’s star players to provide late, clutch goals to extend the team’s winning streak.
On Saturday, the team’s highest-scoring center, Trevor Smith, deflected a Mark Barberio
shot past former Lightning netminder Mike McKenna to give Norfolk a 3-2 overtime win over the Binghamton Senators.
The league’s newly-minted MVP and top rookie, Cory Conacher, was the hero on Sunday, adding the AHL’s goal-scoring title to his resume by using two late third-period goals to complete his first professional hat trick during a 4-2 win over the Adirondack Phantoms.
“Having won 28 straight games, there isn’t that much that we have to change for the playoffs,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “One thing that we will have to do is heighten our sense of urgency. We know that what we’ve done down the stretch puts a bull’s eye on our chest and that the Manchester Monarchs are going to give us their best game.”
The Los Angeles Kings’ top affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, claimed the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed by winning three straight games during the final weekend of the regular season. Although the Monarchs’ 83 points are 30 fewer than the Admirals’ 113 points, Manchester sports the Eastern Conference’s second-ranked defense (behind Norfolk) and is in the playoffs for the 10th time in its 11-year history.
“There’s a stress on playing good defensive hockey in the playoffs,” said Admirals defenseman Mark Barberio
. “Our games were tight last weekend, but that’s how playoff hockey is. Goals are at a premium and we need to stay tight in our system to be successful.”
In addition to a playoff-tested Monarchs squad, another factor the Admirals will have to contend with is the schedule breakdown of their first-round series.
For the first time since 2002-03, the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs will be contested in a best-of-five format. And while the Admirals’ 113 points earned them home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, a scheduling conflict at Norfolk Scope Arena will require Norfolk to relinquish its home-ice advantage in the first round, meaning that the series’ first two games will be played in Virginia and the final three possible games will be played in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“We definitely have to get off to a strong start and win our games at home,” added Barberio. “But at the end of the day, a hockey rink is a hockey rink and we feel at home regardless of what city we play in. We’re the type of team that when we stick to our system, it doesn’t matter who we play against or where we play them.”
Norfolk’s first two playoff games will be held on Friday and Saturday nights, with the series resuming in Manchester the following Wednesday after four days off.
“For our team, we all play through the 76-game regular season to get the chance to be in the playoffs,” said Admirals forward Cory Conacher. “Having the best record and going on a 28-game winning streak is great, but the Lightning’s management team wants players who can perform in the playoffs. For all of us, these playoffs, starting Friday, is our chance to prove ourselves.”