For St. John’s IceCaps fans, the most obvious similarity between the Norfolk Admirals, whom the IceCaps will face in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs beginning 7:30 tonight at Mile One Centre, and the Albany Devils, the team St. John’s bested in the opening round, is that the IceCaps didn’t play either during the 2013-14 American Hockey League regular season.
Norfolk Admirals centre Dave Steckel moves the puck towards Manchester Monarchs goaltender Jean-Francois Berube during the teams’ American Hockey League Eastern Conference quarter-final at the Norfolk Scope. Steckel is one of a number of players who helped the Admirals defeat the Monarchs and advance to a second-round series which opens against the St. John’s IceCaps tonight. — Photo by the Norfolk Admirals
But it goes beyond that.
Like the Devils, the Admirals play outstanding team defence. In fact, Norfolk allowed just 192 goals this season, fifth-fewest in the AHL, and continued with that stingy mode into the post-season, permitting just six goals as they upset the Manchester Monarchs in four games in an Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Those, to remind you, were the conference-leading Monarchs, the third-highest scoring team in the league. But the Admirals (40-26-10), who just snuck into the playoffs by winning their last five games of the regular season, suppressed the Manchester offence to become the first eighth seed to knock off a first seed in the last seven years of Calder Cup play.
It must be said that there is a considerable difference in the main contributors to the defensive efforts of Norfolk and Albany, the latter dispatched by St. John’s in four games. While the Devils’ blueline was anchored by three players — Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill — all aged 22 and under and operating on entry-level contracts, the Admirals’ features greybeards, at least in the pro hockey sense.
There’s 33-year-old Nolan Yonkman, the six-foot-six, 250-pounder who has over 700 games in the AHL, and another 76 in the National Hockey League; 30-year-old Steve Eminger, a one-time 12th-overall draft pick with almost 500 games of big-league experience; and the rough-and-tumble Garnett Exelby, 32, with more than 400 games and nearly 600 penalty minutes in the NHL.
Still, the Norfolk wall isn’t entirely made up of older bricks. Former Maple Leafs’ second-round draft pick Jesse Blacker, acquired by way of an in-season trade with Toronto, just turned 23, while Sami Vatanen, who is back in the AHL after spending most of the season with the parent Anaheim Ducks, won’t have that birthday until next month.
Young star between the pipes
Then there is 20-year-old goaltender John Gibson, who brings a .947 save percentage and 1.42 goals-against average from the series with the Monarchs, including a 35-save gem in a critical 1-0 Game 3 overtime win at Manchester.
The six-foot-three Gibson is considered perhaps the best goalie prospect outside the NHL, with a résumé that includes a gold medal with Team USA at the 2013 world junior championship, a bronze medal with the Americans at the 2013 world men’s championship and a shutout four weeks ago in his NHL debut with the Ducks, making the Pittsburgh native the youngest player in nearly 30 years ago to achieve that feat.
The other Norfolk netminder is former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin Brad Thiessen, who started this past season with Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League, but returned to North American and signed on with Norfolk in late November. It was Thiessen who backstopped the Admirals through their end-of-the season winning streak while Gibson was in the NHL.
Top snipers on the other side of the continent
Of the 16 teams that began these Calder Cup playoffs, the Admirals had the fewest goals (201) in the regular season. Adding to their offensive challenges: they’ve been without leading goal-getters Devante Smith-Pelley (27) and Emerson Etem (24), who are playing for Anaheim in their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings.
Of all the players on the Norfolk roster, none had more points in 2013-14 than right-winger Andre Pettersson (23-33-56), who came over from the Binghamton Senators in a mid-season swap for defenceman Alex Grant. Two other Swedes, Max Friberg (17-23-40) and Richard Rakell (14-23-37) were the only other Admiral forwards with more than 30 points, and Rakell was recalled to Anaheim over the weekend after playing for Norfolk in the Game 4 against Manchester.
Other up-front players on the Ads’ playoff roster include a couple of centres with plenty of NHL time — David Steckel (9-16-25) and Zach Stortini (just nine points, but a whopping 299 penalty minutes to lead the AHL); college products Chris Wagner (14-14-28) and Steve Whitney (10-13-23 ); Maxime Sauve, who had two game-winning goals in the playoffs’ opening round, including the OT tally in Game 3; onetime IceCap Norm Ezekiel; and Matt Bailey, a Manitoban who attended two Winnipeg Jets summer development camps.
The Admirals got a late-season boost from the arrivals of William Karlsson (nine points in nine games) and Nic Kediles (four points in six games), although Karlsson returned to Sweden last week to try out for his country’s team for the upcoming world championship.
Kerdiles, a 2012 second-round draft choice out of the University of Wisconsin, was fifth overall in NCAA Division One hockey this past season with a scoring average of 1.36 points per game. The Texas-born, California-raised power forward was the most valuable player in the WCHA championship tournament in 2013.
Talk about turnover
Two years ago, Anaheim’s AHL farm team was the Syracuse Crunch, who lost to the IceCaps in the first round of the 2102 playoffs. The Ducks affiliated with Norfolk at the beginning of the following season, but that’s not all that changed. Only two players — forwards John Kurz and defenceman Mat Clark — who were on the Crunch playoff roster in ’12 are listed as being with the Admirals today.
There is a notable consistent, however, in the form of Ads’ head coach Trent Yawney, who guided Syracuse in that playoff series with St. John’s. This is actually Yawney’s second go-around with Norfolk. He guided the Admirals for five seasons (2000-05), when they were the farm club of the Chicago Blackhawks before spending a half-decade in the NHL, including two as Chicago’s head coach.