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Norfolk Admirals Notebook

by Tris Wykes / Tampa Bay Lightning

There was a slight misunderstanding Saturday when Norfolk Admirals wing Steve Downie hailed a cab in front of the team's hotel adjacent to the Philadelphia airport. He requested a trip to the Spectrum for the evening's game with the Phantoms, but also asked that he be taken to Subway to grab a sandwich as a pregame snack.

The driver pulled his vehicle to a halt a few minutes later and looked back at Downie. The player stared through the window in confused disbelief at an entrance to the Philadelphia subway system a few hundred yards from the Spectrum's gates.

That unfortunate detour is about all that's gone wrong for Downie as an Admiral this season. The 21-year old is on a 7-game point streak with two goals and 10 assists and has torn through AHL opposition with poised puck handling and pinpoint passing. He has 16 points in 11 Admirals contests.

In Philadelphia and on an empty stomach, Downie set up Norfolk's second goal in a 3-2 shootout defeat of the Phantoms. Cruising out of one corner and behind the net, he somehow threaded a pass to triggerman Jason Ward despite a defender on his hip and a maze of skates and sticks in the low slot.

"It just comes with confidence," Downie said when asked how he's able to hold the puck so long. "You gain a little bit at a time at each level you play."

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Roughly half the Admirals didn't ride the return bus after their Saturday victory. Ticketed for Sunday flights out of Philadelphia to various locales for the Christmas break, the departing players were wished happy holidays by coach Darren Rumble.

Nonetheless, the bench boss was a bit torn in his emotions. With his squad having won three consecutive games and four of its last five, Rumble almost wished Christmas wasn't coming this year.

"Can we call the league and cancel the break?" he joked. "I gave our guys an extra day off, so now they can come back to practice on the 26th and hopefully we'll be able to continue to keep clawing our way up the standings."

The Admirals certainly scrapped their way to victory Saturday against the AHL's hottest team. Philadelphia had won seven consecutive games, nine of its last 10 and had outscored foes 30-13 in that first span. In addition, the Phantoms had allowed just 18 total goals in 13 home games while Norfolk had lost 13 of 17 road games.

Radek Smolenak and Ward scored in regular play and Karri Ramo denied all four Phantoms he faced in the shootout. It was Norfolk's first victory in five shootouts and Ramo had previously stopped 8 of 20 opponents in that format.

"As soon as he made that first (shootout) save, I knew he was good," Rumble said. "He's been a different player the past week since (Tampa Bay goalie coach) Cap Raeder came and worked with him. He's been making those miracle saves he can make."

The Admirals enter the break seven points out of the East Division's final playoff slot and four games under .500 at 12-16-1-4. Smolenak has four goals in three games since being returned by the Lighting and Downie has eight points in four games since being similarly reassigned.

"I think we've expected to play like this all year and it's nice to feel it's finally coming together,"said center Bracken Kearns.

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Veteran center Chris Gratton has three assists in as many games since be ing sent down from Tampa Bay. The towering pivot has been upbeat off the ice and a force on it, winning the majority of his faceoffs and finding teammates with precision passes. He made his minor-league debut Wednesday against visiting Albany and then took his inaugural bus trip at that level during the Admirals' journey to Philadelphia.

The 33-year old has played in 1,086 NHL games since being the third pick of the 1993 entry draft. He said he expects to be in Norfolk the remainder of the season.

"It was no secret there were a lot of forwards in Tampa and we had three or four sitting out every night," Gratton said. "I've been around long enough to understand the business of hockey and I could see the move they made with me coming."

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Admirals statistical notes:  Norfolk has allowed only three total goals in its last three games, the first time it's turned that trick since early in the 2006 season... The Admirals have allowed two or fewer goals in four of their last five games after doing so only four times in their previous 28 games... Ramo and Mike McKenna combined to go 3-0 with a 0.97 GAA and a .964 save percentage last week. McKenna posted the team's first shutout... Norfolk has snuffed 25 consecutive opponent power plays and 29 of the last 30.. . Wing Blair Jones is becoming a point threat on the power play and has assists in his last three games, boosting his team-leading total to 16.

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