by Joe Tasca on 04/18/12 at 08:00 AM ET
Not surprisingly, the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs has delivered some fantastic action and great storylines. But while the hockey world salivates in anticipation of the next chapter of the Battle of Pennsylvania, one of the most incredible accomplishments in the history of professional sports has gone largely unnoticed.
This past weekend, the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League won their 28th consecutive game. The farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning concluded its regular season schedule with an impressive three road wins in three nights.
Norfolk’s streak is the stuff of legend. Prior to this season, no pro hockey team had ever won more than 18 straight games. The Admirals have set a remarkable standard for excellence that will most assuredly land them in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
What’s truly impressive is that only one of the club’s 28 wins during the streak came via a shootout, and that was back on February 18th. Since then, Norfolk has reeled off 22 legitimate, gimmick-less victories in a row.
The Admirals’ feat is stunning on a number of levels. Like most minor-league teams, Norfolk experienced a high level of turnover late in the season. The parent Lightning called up many of the team’s leading scorers and key role players in an effort to give these players vital NHL experience and an opportunity to audition themselves prior to next year. Admirals head coach Jon Cooper was forced to plug in ECHL’ers to fill roster spots, but the club didn’t miss a beat.
It’s also worth noting that Norfolk’s travel schedule is by far the worst in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. The Admirals’ closest divisional rival plays in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which is a six hour bus ride up Interstate 95. Because of its geographical isolation from the rest of the league, Norfolk has to routinely play three road games in three different cities on back-to-back-to-back nights (as they did this past weekend).
The Admirals’ win streak is reminiscent of the New England Patriots’ perfect season in the sense that the team continued to play with a great sense of urgency, despite having clinched the AHL’s best record a few weeks before the regular season concluded. When asked why he didn’t rest his star players down the stretch, head coach Jon Cooper offered this response:
“It’s only human nature to sit here and say, ‘Is it better that we drop a game here?’ But we want to ride this right into the playoffs. We don’t want to bring that mentality into the locker room.
“I’ve got to give these guys a lot of credit. By the end here, I barely had to make a speech. They knew what was at stake and I’m just really proud to be a part of this team, this organization.”
It’s easy to root for a team like the Norfolk Admirals. The club is led by the diminutive Cory Conacher, an undrafted left winger who played four years at Canisius, where he set school records for most goals and points in a career. Signed as a free agent by Norfolk over the summer, the first-year pro tallied a league-leading 39 goals this season, along with 41 assists.
Several other Admiral players have had career-best seasons, including Ottawa native and former New York Islander Trevor Smith (26-43-69). 21-year-old rookie Tyler Johnson was a standout performer all-season, notching 31 goals after graduating from Spokane of the Western Hockey League. On defense, Mark Barberio led all AHL defensemen with 61 points, nine more than his nearest blue line counterpart.
The Norfolk goaltending has obviously been a huge part of their success. Former Memorial Cup winner Dustin Tokarski carried the load for most of the season, registering 32 wins and five shutouts. The third-year pro managed to earn himself a late-season call-up, during which he scored his first NHL win against Boston in mid-March.
Even though the regular season is over and the winning streak is still in tact, the pressure on the Norfolk Admirals heading into the Calder Cup playoffs is all too apparent. Failing to bring home the bacon this spring after capturing national attention with a two-month, season-ending winning streak would place the Admirals in the dubious company of teams like the 1993 Pittsburgh Penguins, who bowed out in the second round of the playoffs despite setting an NHL record by winning 17 games in a row that year.
Should they somehow pull off the unthinkable, the Admirals wouldn’t be the only team in AHL history to run the table in the playoffs. The 1988 Hershey Bears went an unprecedented 12-0 in the post-season. Norfolk needs 15 victories to achieve glory this spring.
The countdown begins on Friday.
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About Tasca's Take
Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.
Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.