Coach Jon Cooper said he will wait until after the season before evaluating what the Norfolk Admirals have accomplished.
He already knows one thing: "If we somehow can pull off this series win, this team would be put at the top of all teams that played in the minors (this season)."
A wide statement, for sure. But as the Lightning's AHL affiliate prepares to face the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs' affiliate, in the Calder Cup final starting Friday, it is not hyperbole. The Admirals are on a 39-3 roll — 11-3 in the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a 28-game winning streak, the longest for a pro hockey team in North America.
"A 28-game win streak in any league separates yourself," Cooper said, "and you have something unique."
And with that, said Whit Bacon, a historian from the Springfield (Mass.) Hockey Heritage Society, if Norfolk wins the Cup, it "easily" could be considered one of the top three teams in AHL history, with 2009-10 Hershey and 1960-61 Springfield.
It sometimes is difficult to pinpoint why a team clicks. That said, Admirals general manager Julien BriseBois has a list that includes young players who progressed quicker than expected, veterans who acted as mentors and "great coaching."
"But the catalyst for the success we've had is that everyone there is high character," BriseBois said. "High character over-achieves and rarely disappoints."
"When you have a group like that, it becomes very easy to put the cause ahead of the individual. Everyone is paying the price for the good of the team, always."
"I totally agree with that," center Tyler Johnson said. "We have a good understanding that with team success, individual success follows. That's huge. We have a ton of respect for one another. Every night you're laying it on the line for the guy next to you."
Norfolk's playoff push includes a four-game semifinal sweep of St. John's, which it shut out twice and outscored 14-2. Game plans, Cooper said, are about "executing at a high level," so opponents must adjust. Said Bacon, "It's a blue-collar team. A different guy steps up every night."
Goalie Dustin Tokarski has played 10 of 14 playoff games with a 1.65 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. Left wing Alex Picard has team bests of eight goals and 15 points. Center Trevor Smith has 13 points with a team-high nine assists.
Center Alex Killorn, after his season at Harvard, chipped in three goals and 11 points. Wing Cory Conacher, the AHL's top rookie, has a goal and nine points.
"There's a synergy in the group," Cooper said. "When one pulls one way, everyone goes with him. It's really fun to watch."
As was winning 28 straight.
"I don't think we'll see a team match that in our lifetime," Cooper said. "It's something we really have to be proud of."
Whether they beat the Marlies or not.