Before this season, no AHL team solely affiliated with the Lightning had ever won a playoff series in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
On Friday night, the Norfolk Admirals used a 2-1 overtime win over the Connecticut Whale to win their second series in this year’s playoffs, with their 4-2 series win over the Whale sending the Admirals to the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals.
“This team has been around a long time and has never advanced past this round,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “Thirty teams start in this league and we’re going to be down to the final four. I think it’s a little validation for our guys and even though it’s not over yet, it’s great for our guys because we want to be known more for winning a championship than for the long winning streak we had.”
Just as Alex Killorn scored a series-clinching goal in overtime to clinch the Admirals’ first-round series, Richard Panik supplied the Admirals with overtime magic on Friday that couldn’t have come in more dramatic fashion.
A bloodied Panik left the game with two chipped teeth in the third period after being hit in the face by a Tyler Johnson slap shot, before dramatically returning to the ice for the extra session and using a backhand-to-forehand deke to beat Whale goalie Cam Talbot 13:01 into overtime on a breakaway.
“Sometimes the hockey gods work in weird ways,” said Cooper. “Panik takes one in the chiclets and he looks like the darned Joker right now. But when he came back on the bench, it only took him 20 seconds or so on the ice to end it.”
Richard Panik celebrates his overtime goal on Friday night in Norfolk (Photo by John Wright)
“The whole time I was on the table, I was thinking that I wanted to end it,” added a stitched up Panik. “I can’t believe it came out just as I thought. I’m really happy.”
Panik’s goal was the culmination of a furious comeback effort by an Admirals team that actually trailed through two periods while getting doubled up in shots by Connecticut, 24-12, through 40 minutes.
However, Norfolk awoke for the third period and tied the game on a Tyler Johnson goal with 9:08 remaining in regulation. Johnson’s goal, coming while playing on a newly-formed line with Cory Conacher and Ondrej Palat, was part of surge that saw the Admirals outshoot the Whale by a clip of 33-7 from the beginning of the third period until Panik’s overtime goal.
“I can’t say enough about how we played, especially in overtime,” said Cooper. “We were a team possessed. We asked ourselves if we wanted to play another game or end it here, and we wanted to end it here. Then we did.”
While the Admirals slumbered through two periods, their goalie, Jaroslav Janus, kept Norfolk in the game by showcasing the brand of goaltending that he’s used to win 18 of his last 19 starts dating back to the regular season.
Janus’ most important save of the night came at 10:10 of the second period, when he stopped one of the Whale’s star forwards, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, on a penalty shot.
“That save was monumental,” said Cooper. “Sometimes you need your goalie to bail you out and he did just that. It was great.”
In fact, Janus’ penalty-shot save couldn’t have come against a tougher Connecticut shooter, as it was the very same Audy-Marchessault who scored to give the Whale a 1-0 lead 14:49 into the first period.
Audy-Marchessault’s game-opening goal came on the heels of a disallowed Admirals goal in the first period’s opening minute, when Norfolk’s leading playoff scorer, Alexandre Picard, had what would’ve been his eighth goal of the playoffs called off due to a high stick.
“I can’t argue with the call,” said Cooper. “But it was tough the way the whole thing went. Had it been called off right away, it would have been different. We thought it was a goal and got all fired up, then took penalties, they scored and we lost our momentum. We were gripping our sticks too tight for a little while after that and it took us a while to start getting shots again.”
When the Admirals started getting shots again, Whale goalie Cam Talbot made a bid to put in the performance of the playoffs, as he still finished Game 6 with 44 saves on 46 shots, but took the loss that ended his team’s season.
Although Talbot was the star of the game for much of the night, the evening firmly belonged to Richard Panik, whose goal sends the Admirals to the Eastern Conference Finals where they’ll meet the winner of tomorrow night’s Game 7 between the St. John’s IceCaps and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.