NORFOLK, VIRG. - The Admirals rolled out their Eastern conference trophy, unveiled a banner for their record 28 straight wins and had the American Hockey League MVP open the scoring.
If it was meant to rattle the Toronto Marlies for the Calder Cup opener and pump up the Scope Arena, it worked to a degree on Friday night. But 10 wasted power plays and a spate of errors are the real reason the first Hogtown-based hockey team to play into June is now the first to be trailing a championship series. Norfolk made the Marlies come unglued just enough in a 3-1 result.
“It’s one game of seven, we’ll move past it,” declared goalie Ben Scrivens, who had to make 40 saves on a humid night in Virgina. “No one expected us to sweep.
“(Norfolk) didn’t re-invent tne game of hockey, they crashed the net and they shot the puck. They scored nice goals, so give credit where it’s due. But we’ll be ready for tomorrow night.”
Possibly with some lineup changes for Saturday said coach Dallas Eakins, though he might rejig his power play before getting around to using the army of extra bodies on this trip.
“We had a dozen players just play horribly,” Eakins said. “That’s the first thing we’ll rectify. We’ll look at the video hard tonight and look into that power play. But there’s no reason to panic.
“We had chances, we hit the post, we had one called back (on goalie interference), but some of our top guys weren’t at their best. Maybe three or forwards I was happy with and maybe two defencemen. We had an off night, our goalie kept us in, we played the best team in the league and ended up losing by just an empty netter.”
Ex-Admiral Carter Ashton looked sluggish at the start, coming off a few weeks out with a concussion, yet provided the only goal to beat Norfolk’s Dustin Tokarski in 202:06 of playoff action. The returning Marcel Mueller wasn’t clicking with the usually potent duo of Nicolas Deschamps and Philippe Dupuis as the replacement for leading playoff scorer Matt Frattin. Mike Zigomanis, often a power-play quarterback, is still out, as is Nazem Kadri.
“You want to go with the guys who got you there,” Eakins said. “We gave them a chance and we may have to make some lineup changes.”
The night provided everything Eakins warned his team to expect - and more.
Norfolk unleashed its buzzsaw forwards such as Conacher, excelled at 5-on-5 play and won the special teams sideshow handily.
“You play hard on the puck, you end up with penalties,” Norfolk coach Jon Cooper said. “But we can’t keep (taking 10) every night.”
Eakins’ team came in with the league’s best regular season penalty killing and a further 58-of-61 in playoffs, but Tyler Johnson’s man advantage goal typified the evening for Toronto, with the bomb squad unable to clear the puck, They did rally during a 5-on-3 that set the table for Ashton to make it 2-1 in the third, but there was no getting away from the power play woes.
“The ice was about the most horrible I’ve seen, it’s like having a lacrosse ball out there,” Eakins said of where the power play went wrong. “But I felt we were complicating it, overhandling it at the top with our defensive pairing and had trouble getting into their zone.”
Defenceman Jake Gardiner had some big problems, while Eakins was having his own issues, trying to keep up with Cooper, who uses seven defencemen and scrambles his forwards.
Conacher’s goal during 4-on-4 play beat Scrivens glove side as he crossed the slot. That gave 7,229 fans the lift the Marlies had denied three other opponents on the road in a record of 5-1 away from Ricoh Coliseum.
For two teams that had never faced each other until pre-game warmups, there was an awful lot of bad blood. The Admirals were as snarly as advertised and crowded Scrivens, while the Marlies ramped up the intensity with their heavyweight line of Colton Orr, Jay Rosehill and Josh Engel. Norfolk went overboard on a couple of retaliation calls. The only actual fight saw Mark Fraser take exception to a hit by Pierre-Cedric Labrie.
“That intensity is the final ... we both want to win this Cup,” said Toronto defenceman Korbinian Holzer. “It’s part of the game and though there was a lot of emotion, it will be good for the upcoming games.
“It will be hard playing two straight, but we’re used to it in this league in the regular season and we don’t have to travel. It’s 24 hours rest and it’s the same for them.”