Tied 0-0 and entering overtime in Game 3 of a series they were leading 2-0, the Norfolk Admirals were faced with a situation on Monday night where they needed a clutch goal to continue their playoff winning streak that stood at four games entering the evening.
The Admirals got the all-important goal just 1:37 into the extra session when Pierre-Cedric Labrie deposited the puck just inside the right post while on an uncontested breakaway against IceCaps goalie Eddie Pasquale.
“Their guy at the point tried to get the puck to the net and Labs blocked it,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “Labs had his momentum moving forward as he blocked the shot and it gave him the chance to get some separation from the pack, and he just made an outstanding shot for the winner.”
Labrie’s unassisted marker, his fourth of the playoffs, was the only goal in a 1-0 Norfolk win in Game 3 that has given the Admirals a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals series.
Entering Game 4 of the series on Tuesday night in St. John’s, the Admirals will be just one win away from becoming the first AHL affiliate of the Lightning to ever qualify for the Calder Cup Finals.
“You have to win four games and not three, and we know we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” said Cooper. “If we’re fortunate enough to get another win, it’ll be something that this organization will always be able to look back at and be proud of.”
While Labrie’s goal came in similar fashion to the overtime-winner that Richard Panik scored on a breakaway in the Admirals’ second-round series-clinching win against the Connecticut Whale, the circumstances leading up to Norfolk’s latest overtime triumph—its third overtime win of the playoffs—were different in that tonight was the Admirals’ first overtime win this season that didn’t decide a series’ final game.
Dustin Tokarski earned his first playoff shutout this season on Monday night in St. John's. (Photo by Jeff Parsons / St. John's IceCaps)
“In those ‘first goal wins’ situations, I feel like we have a confidence about us because of those experiences we’ve had in the same spots earlier in the playoffs,” said Cooper. “It brings a quiet calm to the guys when you’ve had successes in these situations before.”
Although the sell-out crowd of 6,287 in St. John’s, dressed all in white, was an energetic force throughout Game 3, Admirals goalie Dustin Tokarski’s performance without doubt stole a considerable amount of their thunder.
Tokarski stopped all 25 shots he faced in Game 3 to earn his first playoff shutout this season, while giving him three straight victories in a series that he’s only surrendered two total goals in so far.
“Everybody on our team is committed to blocking shots,” said Cooper. “I don’t know how many we had tonight, but every time they’ve gotten through, Tokarski has stood tall for us. Good defense has a lot of layers to it and right now, it’s working well for us, from our goaltender on out.”
While Tokarski was a rock for the Admirals in a Newfoundland & Labrador province that is nicknamed “The Rock,” another main reason for Norfolk’s shutout victory was its penalty-killing unit that killed all six of the IceCaps’ power plays.
Norfolk’s six straight penalty kills in Game 3 improved the team’s penalty-killing unit to a 93-percent success rate in this year’s playoffs.
“We’ve been really aggressive,” said Cooper. “I think we’re stopping most of their shots from even getting through. But ultimately, to be good at killing penalties, your goalie is going to have to be your best penalty killer, and Tokarski has been in this series.”
Tokarski’s counterpart, IceCaps goalie Eddie Pasquale, put in another solid performance himself, stopping 26 of 27 shots on Monday night after turning aside 35 of the 37 shots he faced in Game 2.
But although Pasquale has been stingy since getting pulled midway through the Admirals’ 6-1 win in Game 1 last Thursday, the bigger issue for the IceCaps is how they’re going to find any of their own offense against the Admirals.
Having not scored in 99:46 stretching back to the 1:37 mark of the second period in Game 2, one of the IceCaps’ first missions in Game 4 will be finding a way to score a goal.
Although getting a single goal will be the IceCaps’ first objective on Tuesday, St. John’s also has to find a remedy for its overall issues against the Admirals, who have now won six of seven games against the IceCaps this season.
“We know they’re a really good team,” added Cooper. “It’s definitely not a fluke that they’ve made it this far, but all year, I think it’s tougher competition that brings the best game out of us.”
The Admirals’ “best game” has given Norfolk a 3-0 series lead, meaning Norfolk needs just one more win to seal the series, with the first of the Admirals’ four chances to advance to the Calder Cup Finals coming on Tuesday night in St. John’s.