SAN ANTONIO_the visitors’ bus as it idled beneath the massive arena.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” bellowed defenseman Marty Wilford, organizing plans for a little team bonding on San Antonio’s famous Riverwalk. And nearby, forward Quintin Laing exchanged gleeful excitement via cell phone with his family back in Saskatchewan.
Yes, after downing the Rampage 3-1 to close out the teams’ best-of-five Western Conference quarterfinal series, the Admirals were downright giddy.
“It’s the absolute best, winning a playoff series as a group and as a team, because that’s how you have to win them,’’ said Norfolk’s Brett McLean, whose club may have to wait as many as 10 days for its conference semifinal series to start against a foe as yet undetermined. “It’s really special to do this with such a great group of guys and now we get ready for another opponent.’’
Laing began the fun with a shorthanded breakaway, Kent Huskins notched the winning goal seconds before the second intermission and Johnathan Aitken sealed the victory with his first goal in more than four months.
But it wasn’t Norfolk’s scoring that was most impressive. It was a team defensive effort that resulted in a 41-20 shot advantage. The Admirals pressured the puck wherever the Rampage tried to handle it and that determination, combined with the discipline to stay out of the penalty box, was the difference.
“Tonight we just smothered them from start to finish and we were the better team,’’ McLean said. “We have to make this our blueprint for the rest of the playoffs.’’
Laing, who had only five goals in the regular season, notched his second tally in as many playoff contests. The wing blocked a Jamie Rivers shot at the point in the eighth minute and went in alone on goaltender Chris Mason.
“I just tried to get my stick in the passing lane and it hit my stick, off my body and took the right bounce,’’ said Laing, whose last goal won Game 2. “He was flat-footed when he shot and I had a couple strides on him so I knew I’d have a breakaway.’’
Norfolk’s dominance was almost total through 30 minutes but San Antonio was down only 1-0 thanks to Mason, who stopped 113 of 122 shots in three games.
“He played one of the best series I’ve ever seen a goalie play,’’ marveled Laing.
Said Norfolk coach Trent Yawney: “You knew we were in total control but we couldn’t let our guard down because one or two plays could have made it a whole different game.’’
San Antonio had the chances to do just that when it scored in the 32nd minute and hit a post in the 37th. Huskins and Wilford compounded things with egregious turnovers in their own zone, but Norfolk got a death grip 16 seconds before the second intermission when Huskins fired under Mason’s arm from the high slot.
“We knew if we stuck to our game that it was just a matter of time,’’ Laing said. “We could tell by their faces that we were wearing them down and that Mason was getting tired.’’
The Rampage have all spring and summer to rest. The third-seeded Admirals will most likely face either second-seeded Houston or top-seeded Grand Rapids barring a rash of conference upsets. Yawney for one, is eager for the challenge.
“We know we’ve got our work cut out for us, just like we did in this series,’’ said the coach, whose team lost a conference quarterfinal last season. “But because of that, we played three of the best games in a row that we’ve played in a long time.’’
Notes: Dmitri Tolkunov missed his third consecutive game and his second with what’s listed as a sore knee. Jeff Helperl was activated from Norfolk’s “in-residence’’ list for the second consecutive contest… Notable among San Antonio’s scratches were its leading scorer Jeff Toms, who’s been troubled by a bad back, and former Admiral Jim Campbell, who sat out his second game of the series… Florida Panthers’ coach Mike Keenan, who guides San Antonio’s parent club, scouted the game along with his assistant and former Panthers coach Duane Sutter. Keenan was an intermission guest of Norfolk play-by-play man Pete Michaud on the Admirals’ radio broadcast and recalled playing for the Roanoke Valley Rebels of the Southern Hockey League in 1973-74…
The outdoor temperature at faceoff was 82 degrees…Attendance was not announced but appeared less than 2,000… Rampage forward Serge Payer and defenseman Fillip Novak, who had missed the first two games of the series because of ankle injuries, returned for Game 3… San Antonio finished the series 0-of-12 on the power play… The Rampage’s home arena, the gleaming SBC Center, opened in November and among its many amenities are bathrooms set aside for families with young children and an outdoor street hockey court adjoining one of the many restaurants on the main concourse. Youngsters scrambled about the court Sunday, using sticks and balls provided by the Rampage and shooting at adult goaltenders in full gear…
All patrons entering the SBC Center have their bags searched and hand-held metal detectors run over their persons… The Rampage take the ice for pregame warmups by skating through an enormous inflatable steer’s head… Matt Henderson, who suffered a partial tear of a knee ligament in Game 1 and who is expected to be out at least two weeks, traveled with the team to San Antonio… Mikhail Yakubov, the No. 1 pick of the parent Chicago Blackhawks and the 10th in the 2000 NHL draft, has not scored in his last 28 games… The Admirals enjoyed a moment of unexpected humor as their plane touched down in San Antonio late Saturday night and a flight attendant wished trainer Stu Bender a happy 50th birthday over the cabin’s intercom. Bender, who was not celebrating a birthday, is actually in his 30s.
ADMIRALS 3, SAN ANTONIO 1
Admirals 1 1 1_3
San Antonio 0 1 0_1
First Period_1, Admirals, Laing 2 (unassisted), 7:18, sh.
Second Period_2, San Antonio, Jardine 1 (Kolnik), 11:49; 3, Admirals, Huskins 1 (Gill, McLean), 19:44.
Third Period_4, Admirals, Aitken 1 (White, Peluso), 15:40.
Shots on goal: Admirals, 16-14-11_41; San Antonio, 5-5-10_20. Goaltending: Admirals, Andersson, 2-0 (20 shots, 19 saves); San Antonio, Mason, 0-3 (41 shots, 38 saves). Power plays: Admirals, 0-of-4; San Antonio, 0-2. Penalties: Admirals, 2-4 minutes; San Antonio, 4-8. Officials: Jay Sharrers (referee), Sean Finn, Frank Pretigiovanni.