This season, as the Norfolk Admirals put together a pro-hockey record 28-game winning streak, a league-best 113 regular-season points and a 14-3 record to start the playoffs, the team’s sentiment was that none of its accomplishments would matter if it didn’t win a championship.
On Saturday afternoon in Toronto, the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals achieved their ultimate goal, getting a 6-1 win over the Toronto Marlies to sweep the Finals and become the first team ever affiliated with the Lightning to win the Calder Cup.
“These guys did this at the highest level of competition outside the NHL,” said Lightning assistant general manager Julien BriseBois. “The fact that these guys were able to execute and win at this pace, against this type of competition, shows that these guys are knocking on the door. If you look at past teams that have won this, anywhere from 7-10 players usually make it to the NHL and I think we’ll be in that range, at least.”
The Admirals’ Game 4 win, their 10th straight win to finish their playoff run, was fueled by five straight goals—two each by Mike Kostka and Tyler Johnson, and one by Pierre-Cedric Labrie—that broke open a game that was tied 1-1 in the second period, with Richard Panik scoring Norfolk’s other goal off an individual rush in the first period and Cory Conacher finishing Game 4 with four assists.
“We knew what we were doing,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “The problem is we blew the 1-0 lead and took a lot of penalties. But when Toronto couldn’t get the lead on its chances, I knew we had a good chance of winning this hockey game.”
Alexandre Picard accepts the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup Playoffs MVP. Alex led all skaters w/ 16 (9g, 7a) postseason points. (Photo by Graig Abel)
As was the case with each of Norfolk’s final eight playoff wins, Dustin Tokarski was the winning goalie in Saturday’s championship-clincher, making 18 saves on 19 shots on a day that the only goal he gave up, a late first-period marker by Mike Zigomanis during a 5-on-3 power play, broke a road shutout streak of 272:38 that Norfolk had built since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Connecticut Whale.
“He (Tokarski) gave up just one goal in four road games, in the most important part of the playoffs,” said Cooper. “And that goal was during a 5-on-3. Enough said.”
Although he was held scoreless in Game 4, forward Alexandre Picard was named the Jack A. Butterfield Award winner as the Most Valuable Player of the Calder Cup Playoffs, as he led all skaters with 16 (9g, 7a) postseason points.
“I thought as a whole, during the ups and downs of these whole playoffs, Picard had the most impact on the games,” said Cooper. “He scored the big goals and took the concentration of the other teams away with his agitating style. He’s a well-deserving MVP.”
But for all the standout performances, the 2011-12 Admirals were a team, getting points from all 20 skaters who played a postseason game and wins from both of their goalies, after a regular season where Cory Conacher was the AHL’s MVP and rookie-of-the-year, Mark Barberio was the league’s best defenseman and Jon Cooper was the league’s best coach.
“This is a boost for the whole organization,” said Dustin Tokarski. “We won and the ECHL team (Florida Everblades) won the whole thing as well. It’s a lot of good things to come and we’ll probably see a lot of these guys with long NHL careers.”
However, as one of the oldest adages in sports says, hockey teams win as a team and lose as a team. And for all the Admirals that have garnered individual accolades throughout their careers, Saturday’s win makes them, as a team of Lightning prospects, champions that are arguably the AHL’s greatest team over the last 15 years, which is a distinction that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their careers.
“When the winning streak started, we started playing playoff hockey on Feb. 5 because we didn’t want to lose,” added BriseBois. “There was no quit, these guys have a lot of character and now, they’ve learned how to be champions.”