Once again, Norfolk finds itself looking up at all but one team in the East Division. But this time, the players and coach Darren Rumble feel they're on the verge of a breakthrough. Several contests on the trip saw the Admirals lead in the third period, one featured a fluke winning goal for the opposition and another saw the opposing goaltender play the game of his life.
“The guys played really well and we could have gone undefeated on the whole trip,” said Rumble, whose team hosts Springfield once and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton twice this week in games sandwiched around the Thanksgiving holiday. “We've got some huge divisional games coming up where we can make up some ground.”
Starting with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton clashes, the Admirals' next 14 games are against division foes. If they could put together a hot streak, they could move rapidly up the standings. But a severe slump could be deadly to the team's eventual playoff hopes.
“These games coming up are almost must-wins for us,” Rumble said. “You can't dig yourself too deep a hole. There are a lot of games left, but you have to keep things within your grasp.”
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Entering Wednesday's tilt with Springfield, the Admirals had allowed the second-most goals in the AHL at 77, tied with San Antonio and ahead of only Rochester, which had surrendered 84.
Rumble said the main reasons are twofold. First, Norfolk was the league's second-most penalized team, behind only San Antonio. Second, the Admirals' goaltending hasn't stolen them any games or even played up to its potential.
Part of the penalty issue is that Norfolk is a scrappy team that likes to drop its mitts. But all too often, its players have been whistled for obstruction fouls when they could and should have maintained defensive position through skating.
“We're an honest team,” said Rumble, referring to his club's relative lack of elbowing, slashing and roughing penalties. “But we're not quick and we commit a lot of reaching penalties.”
As for the goaltending, Karri Ramo entered the week at 4-8-3 with a 3.48 GAA and a .889 save percentage. Backup Mike McKenna was 1-3, 4.25 and .865 in the stats columns.
“I expected and still expect our goaltending to be better and I'll leave it at that,” Rumble said.
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A puzzle for Norfolk so far this season has been the struggles of massive defenseman Vladimir Mihalik. The Slovakian might have been the AHL's most improved player over the second half of last season and made the Lightning out of training camp, but has been disappointing since returning to the Admirals after two NHL games.
Mihalik, a second-year pro and a first-round choice by Tampa Bay in the 2005 entry draft, had three assists and a minus-6 rating after 14 Norfolk games. He's been a healthy scratch on a couple of occasions and hasn't looked like the player he was last spring.
“He was the last cut from Tampa and his earliest focus was off,” Rumble said. “I understand how it would be disappointing, but if you come down here and go through the motions, you're in trouble. His head may have still been in Tampa but his focus needs to be here now.”
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Several Lightning prospects skating for the ECHL's Augusta (Ga.) Lynx were involved in a wild affair last weekend when the visiting Florida Everblades prevailed 12-0 and handed Augusta its worst loss in the franchise's 10-year history.
Lynx goaltender Riku Helenius
didn't receive much support and was relieved by Mike Brodeur after allowing eight goals on 22 shots. When the puck dropped after that eighth goal, all five Lynx skaters, including Tampa Bay prospect Chris Lawrence, simultaneously began fights with Everblades. Seven Augusta players were eventually issued game misconducts before the contest ended with a total of 233 penalty minutes.
Said Lynx captain Tim Branham: “It was embarrassing and the whole team just needed to play harder.”