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Norfolk Admirals/Manchester Monarchs Playoff Preview

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, finished the 2011-12 regular season on a pro-hockey record 28-game winning streak and with a league-best 55-18-1-2 record. The team is now poised for a run at the 2012 Calder Cup and its first obstacle is the Manchester Monarchs, the Los Angeles Kings’ top affiliate which won three straight games during the regular season’s final weekend to finish the season with a 39-33-2-3 record and the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. Here is a look at the major storylines to follow for the Admirals/Monarchs opening-round series that begins on Friday night in Virginia:

The Admirals’ award winners make them a championship favorite:
Norfolk has the league’s best record and a 28-game winning streak entering the playoffs. Cory Conacher was the AHL’s MVP, rookie of the year and he led the league with 39 goals, while being named a Second Team AHL All-Star and to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team. Additionally, Norfolk’s Mark Barberio won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman, Jon Cooper won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s top coach and forward Tyler Johnson was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team.

New playoff format adds to importance of getting off to a strong start:
For the first time in nine years, the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs will be played in a best-of-five format. While the Admirals’ league-best record has given them home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, a scheduling conflict at their home arena is forcing the series’ final three games to be scheduled for Manchester’s home ice. With the series, regardless of outcome, guaranteed to be clinched in New Hampshire, it will be vital for the Admirals to get off to a quick start during the series’ first two games, which will both be played in Norfolk.

The performance of Norfolk’s younger players:
Of the Admirals’ league-leading 273 goals scored during the regular season, 126 came from rookies. For six Admirals; Keith Aulie, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, Philip-Michael Devos and Alex Killorn; this is their first forays into the postseason as professionals.

The impact of the Admirals having their complete roster:
At the end of the NHL’s regular season, Norfolk received defenseman Keith Aulie from the Lightning. Admirals Trevor Smith, Brandon Segal, Mike Angelidis, Evan Oberg, Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Dustin Tokarski also enjoyed stints in Tampa Bay this season and are all expected to be in Norfolk’s lineup for Game 1.

Who starts in goal for Norfolk:
Admirals head coach Jon Cooper hasn’t revealed who his starting goalie will be for Game 1. The logical choice seems to be Dustin Tokarski, the AHL’s regular-season wins leader (32) who finished the season winning 13 straight games for Norfolk, sandwiched around his call up to Tampa Bay in March. However, the Admirals’ other goalie, Jaroslav Janus, finished the regular season on a 15-game winning streak, during which he had a 1.39 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage.

Who starts in goal for Manchester:
The Monarchs have the Eastern Conference’s second-ranked defense (behind Norfolk) and have given their two goalies equal playing time since late March. Jeff Zatkoff led the team with 21 wins and was an AHL All-Star this season, while Martin Jones started two of three games during the regular season’s final weekend and was an AHL All-Star last season.

Big Norfolk defensemen against small Manchester forwards:
The Monarchs have the smallest average height and weight amongst the AHL’s 30 teams. Their top two scorers, Justin Azevedo and Brandon Kozun, are both under 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds. For the Monarchs’ top scorers to affect the outcome of the series, they’ll have to fight through Norfolk’s top shutdown defensive pair, Radko Gudas and Scott Jackson. Gudas and Jackson have an average size of 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds.

Which Manchester Monarchs team will show up:
The Monarchs were a preseason favorite in the Eastern Conference that stumbled out of the gates with a 5-8-0-1 record through 14 games. Manchester then sustained two seven-game losing streaks during the winter and had to go 10-3-2-0 down the stretch to qualify for the playoffs on the season’s final day. Even though the Monarchs are the heavy underdogs against the Admirals, they’ve made the playoffs in 10 of their 11 AHL seasons and are an experienced squad entering a short playoff series playing their best hockey of the season.
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