By Bob Crawford
The Eastern Conference Semifinal series matching the Connecticut Whale against the Norfolk Admirals is a matchup of two clubs that have made excellent use of their depth in winning their first-round series’.
The Whale swept the Northeast Division-champion Bridgeport Sound Tigers while getting a total of only one goal from their top two regular-season scorers, Kris Newbury and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. Similarly, the regular season league-champion Admirals were able to knock off the pesky eighth seeds, the Manchester Monarchs, despite having half of their dynamic rookie forward duo, Tyler Johnson, miss the last three games of the series due to injury, and the other half, AHL MVP and Rookie of the Year Cory Conacher, held without a goal.
“You need depth,” Admirals head coach Jon Cooper, this year’s AHL Coach of the Year, said after the Admirals’ practice Tuesday. “If you’re going to go far in the playoffs, you need depth, and I feel our team’s got some of that and so do the Whale. If you’re just depending on one or two guys to get it done for you, you won’t last very long in the playoffs. Newbury didn’t get a goal in the first three games, and you look at for us, Conacher doesn’t get a goal, but both of us advance. If you can just out-depth teams, you really can improve your chances to win.
Whale head man Ken Gernander expressed similar sentiments.
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“You look, and it was a three-game series and a four-game series,” he said. “It’s not like it’s gone on for a monumental, extended period of time. So from our end of things, as long as they (Newbury and Audy-Marchessault) were getting their chances, their offensive opportunities, they did a lot of things for us aside from scoring. They were killing penalties, taking big draws, defensive zone draws, and they did draw the attention of the other team’s checking line for two road games. So there was a lot going on, but I thought they did a lot for our club and were an important part of our win.”
“Johnson’s barely played,” added Cooper. “He’ll be back in this series for sure, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Conacher’s helped out a lot. He’s getting points, he’s just not used to not being the guy that is denting the twine. He’s done a great job, he’s been drawing penalties, he’s kind of been a thorn in a lot of teams’ sides.
“This is not the first time Cory Conacher’s gone four games without scoring a goal. It happens throughout the year, it’s just happening right now for him. You look no farther than our last game of the (regular) season, he had three. Really, he’s got three goals in our last five games, but people look at it as the four (games in the playoffs), and he doesn’t have any. But he’s been really good for us.”
The good thing for both teams, too, is that with the top lines drawing extremely close checking from the opposition, other sources of offense have made huge contributions.
“We got some secondary scoring early on, in the first game, and then in the second game, that was a pretty big goal by Marchie (Audy-Marchessault) to get us a 1-0 lead in Game Two,” Gernander said. “We had defensemen scoring, we had power-play scoring, so we were getting it from all areas, and I thought for the most part we were real good defensively. So it was kind of a good combination.”
The biggest share of that secondary scoring was turned in by 20-year-old Marek Hrivik, who had back-to-back two-goal games in the last two contests of the Bridgeport series, in just his 10th and 11th pro games since finishing his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season with the Moncton Wildcats. While the Whale hope that Newbury and Audy-Marchessault can return to their regular-season levels of production, the objective in relation to Hrivik is to help keep him on his current roll.
“His (Hrivik’s) stint here, everything’s new to him, everything’s novel, he should be real excited and enthusiastic about being here,” said Gernander. “And that helps keep him mentally sharp or mentally ready, playoffs notwithstanding. He’s got a lot on his plate, we just try to encourage him to do whatever it is he does well and really accentuate his strengths.”
It was a veteran who became the scoring ace in the first round for the Admirals, who shattered the previous AHL record for longest winning streak by stringing together an incredible 28 consecutive victories to end the regular season. Alexandre Picard, a seventh-year pro, exploded for eight points, four goals and four assists, in the Manchester series, after being held to six goals and 25 points in 42 regular-season games.
“He’s a pro, he’s a vet, he’s been down these roads before,” Cooper said of Picard. “Ironically, he was on that team in Syracuse (in the 2007-08 and ’08-’09 seasons) that won 18 games (the league record prior to the Admirals’ streak this year). So he’s been part of two of the longest streaks in league history. But he’s really battled injuries this year, I think he played less than half the season. And it’s really tough to get in any kind of groove when you play five, six games then you’re out for two weeks, and that was kind of the story of his season. But for us to advance, to move on, for us to try and get through Connecticut, you need those guys that have been there before to get it done for you. And by far and away he was our MVP against Manchester.”
The Admirals’ otherworldly streak finally came to an end with a 5-2 home loss in Game Two against the Monarchs, one win short of 30 straight.
“We just had everything in motion together,” Cooper responded, when asked what the key to the amazing run was. “If our goalies weren’t playing too well, we scored a bunch of goals. But for the most part, our goaltending was outstanding the whole streak, and we didn’t need a bunch of goals to win. We found ways. We got the lead a bunch of times in the streak, so I think that really helped us out, and our special teams really improved. And the other thing is, we had a lot of breaks, a lot of things went our way.
“It was really frustrating for our guys in the Manchester series, we didn’t get a lot of breaks. We took a lot of penalties, whether the calls were right or wrong, they didn’t go our way, pucks didn’t go our way. And it was kind of odd for us because we hadn’t really seen that for two-and-a-half months. So I think the fact that that happened, it was probably really good for our egos, to have the bubble burst a little bit and say, hey, we’ve got to get back to doing what we do best.”
The Admirals finally slew the determined Monarchs on an overtime goal by forward Alex Killorn, sealing a 4-3 win in Game Four on Friday in Manchester. And as if Norfolk hadn’t already gotten enough big contributions from young players this year, Killorn is another rookie. In fact, the Halifax, Nova Scotia native, like the Whale’s Hrivik, is brand new to the AHL, having joined the Admirals on an Amateur Tryout March 19 out of Harvard University.
Of Killorn’s addition to the squad, Cooper joked, “We lost J.T. Wyman two-thirds of the way through the year (to recall to the parent Tampa Bay Lightning) and he was a Dartmouth grad, so to pull in a Harvard guy, we feel like we have a next President in the making here somewhere on our team.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise, and he’s just gotten better with every game. It’s been a quick audition for him because he only got maybe eight to ten games in the regular season to finish off, and boom, he goes right into playoffs. He’s, again, given us more depth. He can really get around the ice, he’s got a big body (6-1, 197), and he’s really, really helped us out.
“Manchester was an extremely tough series. It was really tough for us because we hadn’t seen them all year, so Game One was an opening, I think, for both coaches, finding out what each team had. But they were a gritty bunch, they gave us everything we could handle, and I’m really glad that Killorn ended it in overtime there because I did not want to go to Game Five up there.”
The Whale’s first-round series also ended on an OT goal, of course, and that came off of the stick of Casey Wellman. While less of an out-of-nowhere surprise than Hrivik, Wellman is also a player the Whale are still learning about, as the season was already more than half over when he was acquired February 3 from Minnesota. With three assists to go along with his series-winner in Game Three, Wellman tied his linemate Hrivik for the series points leadership.
“He played on a line with Hrivik and, at times, (J.T.) Miller, for the most part a fairly young line, and did very well for us in the middle, creating offense,” Gernander said of the second-year pro Wellman. “There was a lot of checking going on, and it was nice that their line was able to create a lot of scoring chances for us and convert for some goals. And he had a big hand in all of that.”
As almost all successful teams do, both the Whale and Admirals have relied heavily on team defense to win games. The Whale rang up the first back-to-back postseason shutouts in franchise history in Games One and Two against Bridgeport, and allowed a total of only three goals in the three games, while the Admirals had the third-best team goals-against average in the AHL during the regular year, allowing an average of only 2.37 goals per game. Norfolk also boasts the talents of the defenseman judged to be the highest-achieving at his position of any in the league this year, Eddie Shore Award-winner Mark Barberio.
When asked about the season turned in by the second-year pro Barberio, who led all AHL blueliners in points (61), assists (48) and plus/minus (+28), Cooper analyzed, “The one thing is about Barbs, we were all new last year, and I think probably that helped save Mark from going to the East Coast League. He was pretty much pegged to go there last year, and we happened to get a couple injuries right out of the gate. So Mark hung around when he probably shouldn’t have, and there was just something we really liked about him as a staff, and we were really pushing management to keep him here, just to see how well he could adapt. And the longer we kept him, the more we knew we couldn’t send him back.
“He really grew as a player last year, but he really grew as a pro this year, really toned his game down. Everything wasn’t rush, rush, rush, he saw the game better, and look no farther than his stats. Everybody’s like, oh, he had almost 70 points or whatever, but I want everybody to look at his plus/minus. He was a marginal plus/minus player last year, and now he was [close to] the plus 30s. It just goes to show you that he’s really rounded out his game.”
The Whale did not have any individual D-man put together the profile that Barberio did, but Gernander was very complimentary of his group’s collective work in the sweep of Bridgeport.
“I thought all three pairs, all six D, played exceptional,” he said. “I think (goaltender) Cam (Talbot) would agree if you talked to him. I thought just our team defense in general was pretty good. I thought we had some good tracks through the neutral zone by forwards to take away time and space and force dumps or chips. I was real pleased with our whole team defense.
“You look at the shots (against, an average of 43.3 per game), but you also have to look at how many of them were scoring opportunities, how many came through screens and how many were second and third opportunities. And really, I thought a large portion of the shots were first shots, which Cam was able to see, make the save on and retain the rebound. And when the rebound retention wasn’t there, I thought we did a great job of boxing out, that they had very few second and third opportunities. If Cam gets a good look at a shot, we’re pretty confident in him making the save.”
When Game One of the series hits on Wednesday, the Whale will have had no fewer than nine days off since finishing off Bridgeport last Sunday, and until Norfolk won their series Friday, the Whale did not even have an opponent to prepare for. That presented some challenges, but according to Gernander, the club did a good job of turning it into a positive.
“With a stint that long, you want to get some good rest, and we were able to do that, but you also don’t want to neglect your conditioning,” he said. “So those first few days, we focused on our team, on our conditioning and just keeping that level of competitiveness up and just staying sharp. And then we had a day off (Saturday) in the middle there, and when we came back we knew our opponent, so we could concentrate our efforts a little bit more on what we would be seeing in this upcoming series. And I think the fact that they now had an opponent to draw their attention to heightened everybody’s intensity level, and I think we had three real good days of practice leading into (Wednesday night’s) game.”
While Connecticut-Norfolk is hardly a time-tested rivalry, there is certainly a greater familiarity level between the two teams than there was between the Admirals and Manchester. The Whale and Admirals met four times during the regular year, with the Whale going 0-3-0-1, so the Whale have a strong appreciation of what made the Admirals a virtually unbeatable opponent the last two months of the regular season.
“There’s a lot of balance,” Gernander said of Norfolk’s game. “They get scoring from their back end, they have two strong goaltenders, a lot of depth up front and guys that can do multiple tasks if they’re called upon. They can be offensive guys and play in your top six and on your power play, and they seem pretty accepting of a role that would be like a checking role and shutting down the opposition. So there’s a lot of balance to their team, and they’re obviously a formidable opponent.”
On the other side of that coin, the balance the Whale showed against Bridgeport was clearly a huge key to their success in that upset.
“I think we’re probably about as balanced right now as we have been all season,” Gernander agreed. “Some of the young kids that we’ve added to our lineup since the playoffs started have played some pretty important roles at times in different games, and we’ve got some scoring from guys that didn’t put up huge offensive numbers, but had been with us all season. Cam Talbot played well in goal, and I thought our defensive corps has been great throughout the three-game series. So there’s a lot of positives to be drawn out of our series with Bridgeport.”
Cooper’s take on the four-game regular-season series was, “I don’t think people realize, if you really digest the box scores, we were behind in a lot of those games. As what happened in that streak, and a lot of things that happened to us at the end of the year, we just found ways to win games. I remember vividly that last game against the Whale, and it was a nail-biter. Our goaltender came up with some big-time saves to keep us in that, and we pulled out some wins.
“But we know exactly what Connecticut brings, and especially with a team with a bunch of new additions and is going to throw a little different look at us, and the fact that they beat, I thought, a superb Bridgeport team and swept them from the playoffs, they seem to be playing extremely well.”
“They were close and they were competitive,” Gernander said of the regular-season games against the Admirals. “They were a red-hot team all season long. And quite honestly, we’ve made some changes to our lineup, so it won’t be the exact same team that was facing them in the regular season. And the little wrinkles that we’ve made, changes that we’ve made, hopefully that’ll make the difference.”
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