NORFOLK, Va. Was that really Craig Andersson tending goal for the Norfolk Admirals on Wednesday at Scope?
The same kid who struggled so mightily last season? Who won only a third of his starts and ended his rookie campaign ensconced as a backup?
Sure was. And his 29 saves were the main reason Norfolk pulled out a 1-0 victory over the Syracuse Crunch, increasing its South Division lead over second-place Hershey to five points.
“He has immense talent but he’s starting to realize the game’s mostly mental,’’ said Norfolk wing Casey Hankinson, whose team made a ninth-minute goal by Brett McLean stand up. “Right now he’s got a nice little aura about him. He knows he can make a save and you need that from your goaltender.’’
Andersson, who improved to 9-2, stonewalled the slumping Crunch in various ways. Slap shots died in his glove. Rebounds were kicked to the corner to die. And goal-mouth scrambles bore no Syracuse fruit.
The youngster’s been a standout most of the season, but at times it’s still hard to reconcile his current performances with those of last winter, when he won nine of 27 games and posted a dismal .886 save percentage.
“You can’t have much worse of a year than he had last year,’’ said Norfolk coach Trent Yawney. “Craig deserves so much credit for the work he’s put in. He believes in himself again and it really shows.’’
It’s apparent in Andersson’s positioning and economy of motion between the pipes, where last season he stumbled and staggered about as if dancing a jig.
It shows in his composure after allowing a goal, when he was once known to smash his stick in a rage. But most of all, it shows in more frequent smiles and a friendly and humble attitude.
“He’s a happier kid with more control over his own life,’’ Yawney said. “He’s a 21-year-old who likes to be around his teammates and laugh a little. He likes to go out for a beer and chase girls, all the things kids his age should be doing.
“He takes every day as it comes, whereas last year, everything was the beginning of the end.’’
The sea change began last summer when Andersson consulted a sports psychologist who works with players and prospects for the parent Chicago Blackhawks. Regular sessions helped the goaltender put his life and career in perspective.
Andersson began this season 6-0 and earned a five-week promotion to the Blackhawks, who chose him in the third round of the 2001 NHL draft. The Illinois native has begun to realize successful players leave their troubles outside the dasher boards and aren’t afraid to seek friendship and help.
“When you’re at the rink it has to be just hockey and you have to be happy you’re here,’’ Andersson said. “Moving away from home is a big step and I think I was slow to adjust last season. I’ve learned how to use friends and coaches and teammates. This year I feel more comfortable going to people and opening up.’’
Andersson closed the door on Syracuse (12-25-4-1) early and often Wednesday. The Crunch, who have won just once in their last 18 games, put pressure on Norfolk (25-13-2-3) but to no avail.
Midway through the game, Matt Davidson broke in and launched a slap shot labeled for the upper corner that Andersson casually gloved. With 11 minutes to play, he stood his ground and took a rocket off the mask. And in the closing minutes, he snuffed point-blank chances by Andrej Nedorost and Jeremy Reich.
“Once you find that comfort zone, it makes the game real easy,’’ said Andersson, whose team hosts Syracuse again Friday. “Ninety percent of the game is mental and how well you feel when you go on the ice.’’
Notes: A healthy Garry Valk along with Travis Moen (flu) and Shawn Thornton (cut hand) were Norfolk’s scratches… Pat Shetler, color man on Norfolk’s radio broadcasts, after Syracuse’s Kent McDonell challenged Admiral Johnathan Aitken and then curled into a ball, sending Aitken off for roughing: “That should be two minutes for cowardice.’’…
Bob Pulford, senior vice president of the parent Chicago Blackhawks, attended Wednesday’s game and sat with Admirals general manager Al MacIsaac in the Scope press box…
Syracuse defenseman Paul Traynor, who played his fourth game with the Crunch on Wednesday, suffered a shattered cheek bone earlier in the winter with ECHL Trenton and must wear a half shield the rest of his career. The veteran needed surgery to implant three plates in his face…
Consider yourself an obsessed AHL fan if you can successfully pronounce the surname of Syracuse center Matt Dzieduszycki…
If the playoffs had begun Wednesday, the Admirals would have been the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed and earned a first-round bye…
The Lowell Lock Monsters, who have been dreadful thus far, recently announced head coach Ron Smith and assistant Tom Rowe will take turns behind the bench for the rest of this season. Smith will spend some time scouting the AHL with an eye on improving Lowell’s roster…
Jan Lasak, a onetime ECHL rookie of the year with the Hampton Roads Admirals, made his first NHL start Tuesday, tending goal for Nashville at Vancouver. The Canucks staged a 4-3 comeback victory, scoring the deciding goal with about five minutes remaining… Former AHL and ECHL Admirals wing Bobby Russell was demoted from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to ECHL Wheeling on Wednesday…
ADMIRALS 1, SYRACUSE 0
Syracuse 0 0 0_0
Admirals 1 0 0_1
First Period_1, Admirals, McLean 12 (unassisted), 8:58.
Second Period_No scoring.
Third Period_No scoring.
Shots on goal: Syracuse, 6-14-9_29; Admirals, 11-5-4_20.
Goaltending: Syracuse, Goehring, 6-11-1 (20 shots, 19 saves); Admirals, Andersson, 9-2 (29 shots, 29 saves).
Penalties: Syracuse, 6-12 minutes; Admirals, 7-22.
Power plays: Syracuse, 0-of-6; Admirals, 0-6.
Records: Syracuse, 12-25-4-1; Admirals, 25-13-2-3.
Officials: Ian Walsh (referee), Paul Carnathan, Paul Nicolls.
Time: 2:11. Tickets distributed: 3,473 (at Scope, 8,927).