The Connecticut Whale haven’t played a game since they finished off a sweep of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on April 22.
Tonight they take the ice in Norfolk to take on the Admirals, the American Hockey League’s best team all season.
If you haven’t been following, then you might not be aware that the Admirals finished the regular season with a 28-game winning streak. They very nearly made it 30 in a row but the Manchester Monarchs were able to win game two to stop the unprecedented streak.
But the Whale have to be feeling like they can do anything right now. They shocked the league by not only beating the Sound Tigers, but sweeping them in convincing fashion. A lot would need to go right to beat Norfolk, so I’ve decided to break it up into three key areas.
Cameron Talbot was sensational in three games in the first round. He shutout the Sound Tigers in the first two games and had enough of a handle on game three to let the Whale pull off the sweep with an overtime winner. But can Talbot repeat that hot play that began nearly two weeks ago against a different beast of an opponent? He’s shown flashes of brilliance before but hardly ever could maintain it.
If you’re asking why Chad Johnson and not Talbot was in net for most of the regular season it’s because Johnson played better for most of the season, until he spiraled down at the season’s end. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnson get some action in this series, especially if Talbot doesn’t continue his hot play. We saw him play three great games, but can he dominate and help the Whale steal a potential six or seven game series? Either goaltender must be brilliant if the Whale want any chance to upset the Admirals.
The Whale got a lot done in the first round, but most of it couldn’t be attributed to the offense’s top guns. Kris Newbury was left off the scorer’s sheets completely and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault only scored one goal. The Whale found scoring from newcomer Marek Hrivik, whose impressive play and four goals led the team to victory. While seeing players like Hrivik, Ryan Bourque, Kelsey Tessier and Andreas Thuresson at the top of the stat sheet is nice, it would be even better if they were accompanied by Newbury and Audy-Marchessault. Only Casey Wellman performed the way he was expected to.
Relying on grinders like Tessier and Bourque to net pucks isn’t going to get the Whale anywhere in this series. It will be a fierce fight and goals must be matched by goals or you’ll fall behind fast. Cory Conacher (four points) and Alexandre Picard (eight points) were lethal in the Admirals’ opening series against Manchester, which they won in four games.
Defense and discipline can mean a lot of things. It can mean playing tight, shutdown defense and being aware of the Admirals’ most dangerous moving parts and it can mean staying out of the penalty box as much as possible. For the Whale’s success it means both. Even when the Whale were shutting Bridgeport out they were giving up a lot of shots and opportunities. Talbot often bailed them out. Norfolk strikes me as a team that will take advantage of these opportunities. There’s a reason why they won 28 games in a row to finish the season.
For the Whale to hang with Norfolk the defense must be strong. It will be interesting to see if Dylan McIlrath, the New York Rangers’ former first-round draft pick, will worm his way into the lineup tonight. Coach Ken Gernander will have to figure out which defenseman that he’s relied on all season long to sit if he chooses to go with the Ranger prospect (or if Ranger brass commands him to). The obvious choice would be to sit Jared Nightingale. While he led the Whale with a plus five in the first series (that stat has little value to me), Nightingale is sometimes a liability on the blueline and is always a possibility to take a minor penalty. Nightingale is a big, physical defenseman and the Whale’s only version of a tough guy fighter, but that isn’t much of a need in the AHL’s second season. McIlrath could fill his shoes adequately if Gernander looks to adopt more fresh blood into his lineup this series.
With confidence soaring at the right height, I think the Whale will make this series tough for Norfolk. Manchester managed to win a game against the Admirals and took them into overtime in the decisive game four. I don’t think they can beat Norfolk in a seven-game series, but I do think the Whale can do one better than the Monarchs did and make this a six or seven game battle if they do everything right. Otherwise, things will end quick for the Whale. Norfolk seems too explosive and good of a team to make mistakes against. NORFOLK IN SIX.