The Lightning’s top minor-league affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, play Game 1 of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals this Friday night.
The Admirals’ final-round opponent is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top affiliate, the Western Conference-champion Toronto Marlies, who have eliminated the Rochester Americans, Abbotsford Heat and Oklahoma City Barons while posting an 11-2 overall record in this year’s playoffs.
Here are a few major storylines to follow in the Admirals/Marlies best-of-seven series which will decide who is minor-league hockey’s top team for the 2011-12 season.
1. Facing A Mystery Opponent- There will be a definite feeling-out process at the beginning of the series, given that Friday’s Game 1 will be the Admirals’ first-ever meeting with the Marlies. In fact, since the Admirals’ only Western Conference opponent this season was a Charlotte Checkers team that actually never played against the Marlies itself, there are few ways of gauging how Norfolk matches up with the Toronto team that had a 10-4-0-2 record in its games against a random sampling of Eastern Conference opponents this season. Because of a lack of head-to-head matchups and mutual opponents to compare records against, the series’ early games will be a great indication of how the teams stack up against each other, and of how the series will unfold.
2. The Admirals’ Long Layover- While the Admirals couldn’t have scripted their four-game sweep of the St. John’s IceCaps in the Eastern Conference Finals any better, the hasty fashion in which they disposed of their third-round opponent has given Norfolk 10 days off entering the Finals. Given that Norfolk has won each of its last six playoff games while outscoring its opponents at a rate of 20-3, the Admirals’ ability to seamlessly pick up from where they left off when they last played will greatly dictate the tone of the series’ first two games, which will be played on back-to-back nights in Virginia this weekend.
3. Dustin Tokarski vs. Ben Scrivens- The Admirals allowed only two goals in their entire third-round series against the IceCaps, including back-to-back shutouts by Dustin Tokarski in the series’ final two games in St. John’s. Although Tokarski takes a shutout streak of 159:46 into the Finals, his counterpart, Marlies goalie Ben Scrivens, has been just as stingy and leads AHL goalies in playoff goals-against average (1.61), save percentage (.944), shutouts (3) and wins (11). Since both teams’ goalies enter the Finals playing the best hockey of their pro careers, it can be expected that many of the series’ games will be closely-contested, meaning that the eventual Calder Cup Champions will probably have to get a few of their wins in overtime or by breaking late-game ties.
4. These Teams Have The AHL’s Top Playoff Scorers- Although the Admirals and Marlies have been the league’s top two defensive teams in the playoffs, each club does have a handful of forwards who have performed just as well as their goaltender teammates during this playoff year. Alexandre Picard, Norfolk’s leading playoff scorer, leads all AHL skaters with 15 playoff points (8g, 7a), while the Marlies’ top two playoff scorers, Matt Frattin and Jerry D’Amigo, are tied for second in AHL playoff scoring with 13 points each.
5. Who Plays For Toronto?- One of the Marlies’ two top playoff scorers, AHL playoff goal-scoring leader Matt Frattin (10 goals), will not play in the Finals, as he suffered a serious knee injury while scoring an empty-net goal in Toronto’s Western Conference-clinching win over the Oklahoma City Barons. Additionally, the Marlies are expected to be missing the services of their regular-season leading scorer, Mike Zigomanis, the Maple Leafs’ first-round draft pick from 2009, Nazem Kadri, and Marcel Mueller, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser and Carter Ashton. Although some of the Marlies’ injured players could return to action at various points during the series, they’ll have to each fight their way back into a Toronto lineup that could have forward Greg McKegg in action for Game 1. McKegg joined the Marlies earlier this week after teaming with the Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick from 2011, Vladislav Namestnikov, on the London Knights team that was defeated by the Shawinigan Cataractes in the Memorial Cup Finals this past Sunday night.
6. Keith Aulie vs. Carter Ashton- At this year’s NHL trade deadline, one of Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman’s most surprising trades was the deal where he sent Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick from 2009, power forward Carter Ashton, to Toronto for defenseman Keith Aulie. Although Ashton has missed the Marlies’ last 11 playoff games with a concussion, it seems as if he could be returning to his team’s lineup at some point during the Finals, meaning an Ashton/Aulie matchup could materialize and pit two players against each other who were traded for one another three months ago.
7. The Series Schedule- After opening the series with back-to-back games this weekend in Norfolk, the teams will have four straight days off before resuming the series a week from Thursday in Toronto. It’s hard to say which team the days off will favor, with the only obvious consequence of the spread-out schedule being that both teams will be able to get extra rest for their injured players. Scott Jackson is the one Admiral who could especially benefit from the time off, as the defenseman hasn’t played since leaving Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals in St. John’s after getting hit in the ear with a puck while sliding to block a slap shot.
Game 1 – Fri., June 1 – Toronto at Norfolk, 7:30
Game 2 – Sat., June 2 – Toronto at Norfolk, 7:15
Game 3 – Thurs., June 7 – Norfolk at Toronto, 7:00
Game 4 – Sat., June 9 – Norfolk at Toronto, 3:00
*Game 5 – Sun., June 10 – Norfolk at Toronto, 3:00
*Game 6 – Wed., June 13 – Toronto at Norfolk, 7:15
*Game 7 – Fri., June 15 – Toronto at Norfolk, 7:30