Alexandre Picard was at the right place at the right time, which has been his story throughout the playoffs.
Picard scored for the seventh time in 11 games, hammering home a rebound at 15:38 of the second period Saturday to give the Norfolk Admirals a lead, then added an empty-net goal for a 3-1 win over the St. John’s IceCaps.
The victory gave the Admirals a 2-0 lead in the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final. The teams return to St. John’s, N.L., for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday.
There were signs of a long night for the IceCaps when Norfolk’s Richard Panik scored from long range only 51 seconds into the game. Two nights earlier, St. John’s goalie Eddie Pasquale had been victimized by outside shooting in a 6-1 loss.
He gave up four of the six goals before being lifted.
But on Saturday, Pasquale settled in, withstood a four-shot Admirals onslaught that came on the heels of Panik’s goal and started to get some help from the rest of the IceCaps. They spent much of the evening emulating the Admirals: diving to stop shots, taking pucks against the body to keep them away from the goalie.
“Any time you get scored on in that first shift, it’s mentally tough to turn that page and get back to where you need to be,” St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge said. “Especially with the guys really wanting this game. You could feel it in the dressing room, and to have that start makes it an uphill climb to get back to where you need to be.
“Eddie made some key saves to let us get our feet back under us.”
“I thought Pasquale was outstanding the first 16 minutes or it might have been a different game,” said Admirals’ coach Jon Cooper. “That’s the way he’s been in the playoffs so far. But our guy is standing tall as well.”
The shot blocking was just the kind of help Norfolk goalie Dustin Tokarski was getting at the other end of the ice, though he had moments in which he had to go it alone. For all the help he got, Tokarski still faced 31 shots, saving 30 of them as he won for the sixth time in eight playoff games this season.
He was particularly strong near the end of the opening period, when a spate of Admiral penalties put them in a 5-on-3 power play hole. St. John’s took advantage of it with a pass to Aaron Gagnon on the goalie’s doorstep.
Tokarski slid across to turn the shot back, and seconds later, he punctuated the period with a glove save on a blast by St. John’s Jason King. As the buzzer sounded, Tokarski turned his glove with his wrist in a bit of flair, delighting the 6,249 on hand.
“Without him, we’re probably not sitting here right now,” Cooper said of Tokarski, who has won six of eight playoff games this season. “Maybe we’re sitting here right now, but probably not 2-0.”
McCambridge said that the IceCaps needed to do more with what opportunities they had.
“When you compare it to the first game ... I thought we did a much better job,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting to the second and third chances in front of their net to get some rebounds. But their goalie isn’t giving up many.”
St. John’s tied things at 1-1 only 1:51 into the second period when John Albert popped a rebound past Tokarski, who had rejected Paul Postma’s bomb from the blue-line but did not control the rebound.
That set things up for Picard’s heroics, which finished off a 2-0 series lead for Norfolk, its first of the playoffs.
“This is a good team we’re playing,” McCambridge said “They’re good on their home ice, but we think we’re good on our home ice, too. I thought there were some real positives, some things we can take from tonight’s game and use to get some pucks behind their goalie. Our game is at a better level than Game 1, obviously. It’s more the type of game we thought we would be playing.”