Expansion Team Explodes in AHL Southern Division

By Corine Gatti
There is a dynamic hockey story taking shape just south of the Mason Dixon Line! The Norfolk Admirals’ (affiliate Chicago Blackhawks) epic began on October 6, 2000. Mind you, this is not an article written about a lone ranger harnessing the team on his steed, nor is it an invitation to get a glimpse of a one-man show. This, hockey connoisseurs, is about a roster of players who support and carry each other on the ice. And how about off the ice? The comraderie with this group is very evident. Even though they are from all different parts of the world they treat each other like brothers with one cause, to win a championship. This combination will offer them a ticket and can set the stage for a chance to the 1st round of the play-offs. “The Chicago Blackhawks have put together a very competitive team, entertaining team with the management skills of Al MacIssac and coaching leadership of Trent Yawney. The future looks promising for even greater success as the season progresses,” said AHL President Dave Andrews.

What comes to mind when you think of the newest arrival to the American Hockey League, Southern Division? “Surprising… They amazingly come together no matter challenges they have faced,” said Channel 13 (ABC) sports anchor, Pete Potchowski. The fact is that many hurdles tend to orbit around a newborn team making the transition from infancy to adulthood. New players, coaches, and fans have a period of courtship in the first few months on and off the ice, it can be an awkward time. If a squad can stay above ground level at the 500 mark. The fans and the players can walk confidently away from the season–retrieve their bearings and look towards next season. But to utter the “C” word, this early in a team’s life? The Calder Cup is usually just a mirage especially in a team’s first year. But more surprisingly, there’s whispering on the outer harbors of Norfolk that the Calder Cup may not be in a whimsical childhood dream, but a possible a realization.
So, what cards has the Blue and Gold drawn midway though they’re inaugural season? Adaptation is another piece of the puzzle. Players being summoned at crucial times didn’t seem to shift the team’s balance. Players being shuffled to Chicago, such as rookie sensation Mark Bell (30-9-14) and led the league in points) didn’t paralyze the front lines as expected. Chris Herperger and the veteran skater Chris McAlpine also added new challenges after vacating their roles. But once again, Marty Wilford (44-4-22) on Defense, Casey Hankinson a Right Wing, (44-16-14) Ajay Baines a Center, (39-6-7) stepped up to bridge the gap.

As to new additions, AHL All-Star, Josef Marha (32-11-20) and Blair Atcheynum (17-10-3) brought with them the incredible skills with the wood and NHL experience to the table. They have been incredible additions this season. A young rookie from Trail, British Columbia, Steve McCarthy has given 3 assists in his first three appearances. His name will flash on the NHL platform in the future. Also, Norfolk has two of the top netminders. Michel Larocque (9-8) and Jeff Maund (10-7), who both ranked top ten in the league, led to be the backbone in the first half. However, a key player has also struggled. NHL hopeful, Ty Jones didn’t make much noise midway this season. The young forward looked sluggish on the ice playing the fourth line. In 30 games he only tallied 3 goals and united only 5 assists. Recently, he has picked up the pace during his last few appearances, collecting a couple goals and a few assists.

On the flip side, the ice started melt and problems started to accumulate. On power play advantages the Admirals fell down to 20%, and penalty-killing minutes didn’t fall too far behind. It started to short circuit their growth. Inconsistencies and lack of control of the rubber hurt Norfolk. They take early leads and only play for a solid twenty minutes, then retire in key matches. “We have a great team every one competes hard; that’s the key to win. You have to think smart, to play smart and we haven’t played smart,” said, center Ajay Baines. That wasn’t the end. Their struggles didn’t make Norfolk lose hope. In fact, it resuscitated them.

Are they the Comeback kids? “Its still too early to say that, said goalie Jeff Maund, we need keep winning those key games.” The Admirals who are now rated top in defense, with the lowest goals (2.41) and shots (25.00) against them in the AHL, prevailed, despite losing ten of their original 24 man roster. The team placed 17-12-5 at the end of December and cut their deficit to 1 point behind first place Kentucky Thoroughblades (San Jose Sharks). “We are battling back; that’s what we need to see; we are not going to give up,” said, an aggressive Left Wing, Kyle Calder who has collected 11 goals this season before getting promoted to the Windy City. Besides, the 22 year-old is expected to play on Chicago top three lines next year.

Now, what’s next for the men in Blue and Gold? The new kids packed their bags and moved from last place to third best in power plays. They are the only team who has not been scored on in a shorthanded situation and has posted six shorthanded tallies this year. Also, they moved from sixth to forth place in man-advantage time. In addition, they have outshot their opponents 36 times and have only been outshot 6 times. They are currently only a handful of points behind the Kentucky Thoroughblades. The pivotal point came when they defeated Calder Cup Champions the Hartford Wolfpack (New York Rangers) 7-3. Admirals showed that they could win against the best in the league. “We right where we need to be. I don’t want to fall the trap of getting comfortable,” said skipper Trent Yawney. Well its not going to be comfortable. As former coach once said, “When you face a fork in the road, step on the accelerator.” Norfolk is at that fork. Now, is the time to go into overdrive and accelerate on a game-by-game basis. But, it is vital that the crew can capitalize on power plays, kill penalty minutes, and continue to keep the lines effective when key players advance.

Then, the keys to the Calder Cup are still within reach. So, will the new kids trade their sticks for a playoff spot? Or, will they fade into the inaugural history books? We are still in the thick of the season. Now just sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride. Inaugural season promises to be a memorable one here in Norfolk!