Lots to consider as IceCaps-Admirals series shifts to Norfolk

Brendan McCarthy
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Norfolk Admirals netminder John Gibson slides across his crease as defenceman Steve Eminger (19) checks the St. John’s IceCaps’ Adam Lowry at the side of the net in Game 1 of the teams’ American Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal series Tuesday at Mile One Centre. The Admirals took the opener 3-1, but the IceCaps rebounded with a 2-1 in Game 2 to send the best-of-seven series to Norfolk, Va. tied at a game apiece. Game 3 is Saturday.

Emptying the notebook as teams prepare for Saturday's Game 3 in (darn it) sunny, warm Virginia

Some bits and pieces about the St. John’s IceCaps, the Norfolk Admirals, their second-round American Hockey League playoff series, and some other related stuff as the two teams settle away in Norfolk, Va., after a travel day Thursday:
It probably can’t be overstated how important it was for the IceCaps to get a 2-1 win Wednesday night at Mile One Centre to tie the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal at a game apiece, especially with the series having a 2-3-2 format and the next three games at the Norfolk Scope, beginning Saturday night.

Since 2009 — and including this 2014 post-season — there have been 17 Calder Cup playoff series (both best-of-five and best-of-seven) which have seen the visitors win the first two games. In only three of those cases has the loser of those first two contests come back to take the series.

The most notable example of the latter was the 2010 final, which saw the Hershey Bears — whose lineup included present IceCaps’ forward Andrew Gordon — lose the opening two contests at home at the Giant Center, but win the next four to capture the Cup.

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By the way, not all AHL playoff match-ups are 2-3-2. When competing teams are situated closer to each other, the series will have the more traditional 2-2-1-1-1 set-up.

A big factor in this is money (isn’t it always?). In the post-season, the league gathers up a percentage of gate receipts from playoff games and puts most of that money aside for a payout pool for players, but also covers (in most cases) the transportation costs of the teams. Therefore, a 2-3-2 setup can mean fewer flights, which means fewer expenses (although less travel can also help in scheduling).

The attention paid to the cost factor can also show up in the rather unique situation of having the two competing teams share the same charter flight, as was the case Thursday when the IceCaps, Admirals and associated personnel boarded the same plane at Torbay Airport for a trip to Norfolk.

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As for that players’ pool, it is based on lump-sum payments for each round. The AHL’s collective bargaining agreement with its players unions also stipulates the league contribute 32.5 percent of all playoff revenue into the players' playoff pool if total gate proceeds exceed $2,500,000.

The pool money is divided into equal shares for players on the teams, based on how far teams get into the playoffs. It’s worth noting that this can be the only pay for players in the post-season, since their annual contracts expire at the end of the regular season.

There often are cases of AHL teams and/or their NHL parent clubs paying out playoff bonuses in addition to the league pool, but in many cases, players can be playing for considerably less money than they did in the regular season.

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Saturday’s game at the Scope has a late start time — 8 p.m. Eastern, 9:30 p.m. NT — to allow time for the facility to be converted to hockey purposes after hosting the graduation ceremonies for Norfolk State University earlier in the day.

Games 4 and 5 Monday and Tuesday have earlier starts: 7:15 p.m. Eastern, 8:45 NT.

Keep an eye on ice conditions, especially Saturday. With that quick turnover from a non-hockey mode and warm weather forecast for Norfolk (see last item), it might not be first-rate.

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Overall, the IceCaps have a 1-5 record at the Scope, including two losses during the 2012 Eastern Conference final that saw Norfolk (which, at that time, was Tampa Bay’s farm team) sweep St. John’s en route to a Calder Cup title.

Scores have been generally close, except for a 6-1 Admirals’ win in Game 1 of that 2012 series. Still, the IceCaps have had trouble scoring in Norfolk, averaging just a goal a game in the half-dozen contest they’ve played there.

For IceCaps’ captain Jason Jaffray, thoughts about the Scope undoubtedly don’t centre on the team’s struggle to score, but of a March 28, 2012 regular-season game there that saw him suffer a broken neck on a hit by Admirals’ defenceman Radko Gudas, resulting in spinal fusion surgery for Jaffray.

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The Scope is one of the older buildings in the AHL, having opened in 1971, the same season the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL farm began playing out of the building. The team was originally known as the Tidewater Wings, but changed to the Virginia Wings for the remaining three years (1972-75) of its stay in the region.

The No. 1 goalie for the Virginia Wings for two of those three years was Corner Brook native and Memorial University product Doug Grant.

Grant played 44 big-league games for Detroit during that time, mostly during the 1973-74 NHL season, but appeared in 92 games for Virginia, including his rookie pro season (1972-73), when he led the AHL with six shutouts and was named to the league’s first all-star team.

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After Detroit moved its farm team from Norfolk in 1975, the Tidewater region (which includes Hampton, Va.) was represented by a procession of pro hockey teams: Tidewater Sharks (Southern league), Hampton Gulls (AHL), Hampton Aces (Eastern league), Hampton Roads Gulls (Atlantic Coast league) and Hampton Roads Admirals (ECHL).

When the AHL returned in 2000, the Admirals’ nickname — which references the huge U.S. naval base at Norfolk — was retained.

There is always some confusion about the fact that there are two AHL teams with the Admirals nickname, the other being Milwaukee’s.

The Milwaukee Admirals got permission to bring their nickname with them when they joined the AHL in 2001 as one of six teams being absorbed from the old International league.

However, unlike Norfolk’s team, the Milwaukee moniker has little to do with naval history. One of the early investors in the city’s pro hockey franchise owned a furniture store and the team took on the name as one of the brand of appliances sold there.

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Given the goaltending we’ve been seeing through the first two games of this series, it wouldn’t be any surprise to see more low-scoring contests over the next few days.

John Gibson (1.45 goals against average) of Norfolk and Michael Hutchinson (1.52 GAA) have the best goals-against averages of these AHL playoffs, after only Drew McIntyre of the Toronto Marlies (1.33), and are also in the top three in save percentages, .955 for Gibson (the same as McIntyre) and .951 for Hutchinson,.

What’s more, they’ve been busy, each facing an average of more than 30 shots a game. Gibson faced more than 40 shots in the first two games of the series at Mile One.

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Like Gibson, Hutchinson looks like a goaltender in the zone and ready for a long playoff run. Not that the IceCaps don’t have plenty of backup, if necessary.

Tyler Beskorowany, Jussi Olkinuora and teen Eric Comrie are also netminders on St. John’s playoff roster. (Officially, so is Eddie Pasquale, who is still recovering from season-ending hip surgery). And although he wasn’t on the roster, star goalie prospect Connor Hellebuyck was with the IceCaps for a while this month before joining Team USA for the world hockey championship, which begins today in Belarus.

The six-foot-four Hellebuyck, who starred at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell the last two years, was the initial winner of the Mike Richter Award as the top netminder in NCAA U.S. college hockey this past season. There’s good reason to expect he’ll be with the IceCaps next season after recently signing an entry-level contract with the parent Winnipeg Jets.

Hellebuyck, who turns 21 later this month, is part of a three-man crease tandem for the Americans at the worlds, along with NHL veteran Tim Thomas and David Leggio of the AHL’s Hershey Bears.

If it had been the Bears edging out the Admirals for the last playoff spot in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, there is a likelihood Norfolk’s Gibson would have a spot on the U.S. team. He was with them at the 2013 world championship as the U.S. won a bronze medal.

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St. John’s defenceman Josh Morrissey, who got his first pro goal in Wednesday’s 2-1 win, is only 19, but still isn’t the youngest player who has suited up in this series.

That would be Norfolk blueliner Shea Theodore, who made his Calder Cup playoff debut Wednesday. The Western Hockey League junior won’t be 19 until August.

Theodore, a British Columbia native who was a first-round draft pick of the parent Anaheim Ducks in 2013, is one of a number of youngsters who joined the Admirals late in the season and have already seen playoff action.

Others include forward and former University of Wisconsin star Nic Kerdiles (3-1-4), who leads Norfolk in playoff scoring; centre William Karlsson, who rejoined the team after a failed bid to make Sweden’s team for the just underway world championship; and defenceman and Northeastern University product Josh Manson, the son of former NHL rearguard Dave Manson.

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One reason the Admirals have been depending on the kids is because — up until Thursday — they had four key players on Anaheim’s Stanley Cup playoff roster. They include forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Richard Rakell, three of the team’s top five scorers in the regular season, plus defenceman Sami Vatanen, who was recalled by the Ducks after Game 1 in St. John’s.

The Admirals did get some good news Thursday in that leading scorer Emerson Etem is being returned from the Ducks. The forward had 24 goals and 54 points in just 50 games for Norfolk this season. (Andre Pettersson had 56 points, but just 16 with Norfolk after coming over from Binghamton in a trade).

With Anaheim trailing the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 in their Western Conference final, the IceCaps have to be thinking, at least a little bit, about dispatching Norfolk as soon as possible, otherwise the Ducks might get knocked off early, freeing up more players to greatly strengthen the Admirals’ playoff chances.

How much of a difference could they make? Well, for example, between them, Etem and Smith Pelly accounted for 52 goals, more than one-quarter of Norfolk’s regular-season total.

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Finally: Not to rub it in, considering the spring we’ve been having in Newfoundland, but in case you are wondering … the forecast in Norfolk for the weekend calls for mostly sunny skies and daytime temperatures in the 30C range.

Grrrr. And Brrrr.

 

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: IceCaps, U.S. college, NHL Giant Center Torbay Airport Virginia Wings Norfolk State University Detroit Red Wings Hampton Roads Admirals Milwaukee Admirals Toronto Marlies Team USA University of Massachusetts-Lowell NCAA University of Wisconsin Northeastern University

Geographic location: Norfolk, U.S., Detroit Tampa Bay Corner Brook Anaheim Hampton, Va. British Columbia Sweden Newfoundland

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