When the American Hockey League season started in October, the Norfolk Admirals had a rookie line comprised of Carter Ashton, Tyler Johnson and Cory Conacher.
All three scored Friday in the opening game of the Calder Cup final — Conacher and Johnson for the Admirals, and Ashton for the Toronto Marlies.
Ashton’s third-period goal was all an offensively-challenged Toronto club could muster as Norfolk killed 10 Marlies’ power plays to take Game 1 of the best-of-seven AHL final 3-1.
“We had an off night,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, who added that he was satisfied with the play of just “three or four of our forwards ... and maybe two defencemen.
Brandon Segal added an empty-net goal, while Dustin Tokarski made 23 saves to get the win. Ben Scrivens made 39 saves in defeat.
“We had an off night as a group, and our goalie kept us in there, but we ended up losing by two to the best team in the league,” Eakins said. “We can play better, and I guess that’s the only positive right now.”
Eakins vowed a long night of video work and changes for Saturday’s Game 2 against an Admirals club Toronto did not play in the regular season.
But there’s one thing Eakins won’t be able to do anything about.
“No. 1, that was the worst ice I’ve ever seen in my life,” Eakins said of the Scope Arena surface. “It was just horrible out there. It was like having a lacrosse ball, but I thought we were complicating it.
“When there’s ice like that, it’s the same for both teams, and you’ve got to simplify your power play. You’re looking for two passes and get it to the net. We were having trouble handling it up top with our (defensive) pairing.”
Despite the ice conditions Eakins thought his team created some chances.
“We hit the post. We had one called back (because of goalie interference by Philippe Dupuis),” he said. “But they had some Grade ‘A’ chances that they couldn’t get their sticks on as well.”
Conacher opened the scoring with teams playing 4-on-4 at 12:21 of the first. The AHL’s regular-season scoring champion took a pass from Johnson and deked Toronto defenceman Simon Gysbers before beating Scrivens over the left shoulder.
Conacher, who led the AHL with 39 goals, had scored only once in 42 shots spread over 13 playoff games before Friday.
Johnson made it 2-0 with a power-play goal at 10:03 of the second period, only the fourth man-advantage goal Toronto has given up in 13 playoff games.
The Admirals had a great chance at making it 3-0 when they opened the third period with a 5-on-3 man advantage. But the Marlies turned back that threat, and Ashton’s goal from the right playoff circle finally dented Tokarski to make it 2-1 at 3:57.
It was only the fourth goal the Admirals have given up in their last seven games.
Ashton was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs by Norfolk’s parent club, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in February.
Segal’s empty-net goal added insult to Toronto’s power-play injury, scoring with 19 seconds left while the Marlies pressed for the tie with Scrivens on the bench.
Toronto was without injured forwards Matt Frattin — who leads the AHL with 10 playoff goals — Nazem Kadri and Mike Zigomanis, who led the Marlies in scoring during the regular season.
“We had at least a dozen players, not play horribly, but just have off nights,” Eakins said. “That’s the first thing we’ll rectify, and usually if you rectify that, all of the other stuff falls into place.”