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May 21, 2009

A True Cinderella Story: The 1997-98 Admirals (Part 2)

The Hampton Roads Admirals were the last team to qualify for the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs. They were also the last team standing. Last week, we took a look at the beginning of the Admirals’ remarkable run from making the playoffs to defeating the Roanoke Express in the second round. This week, we’ll take you to the conclusion of the magical 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs as the 11-year anniversary of the Admirals’ third ECHL championship approaches tomorrow.

The 1997-98 Hampton Roads Admirals were the final team to qualify for the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs. They were the lowest-seeded team in the playoffs. Yet, they swept the top-seeded Peoria Rivermen in the opening round and rallied from an 0-2 series deficit to defeat the second-seeded Roanoke Express in the second round.

The Northern Conference Finals pitted the Admirals against the Wheeling Nailers. Wheeling, the fourth-seed in the conference, defeated the Toledo Storm, the third-seed, in four games during their best-of-five Northern Conference Semi-Final series. The Nailers and Admirals were Northeast Division rivals, with Wheeling taking the second spot in the division with 37 wins and 83 points while the Admirals locked down the fourth spot. Wheeling’s offense was tied for second in the conference with an average of 3.64 goals scored per game.

Al MacIsaacGame One of the Northern Conference Finals on April 22 at the Wheeling Civic Center was one to remember, as Dan Ceman’s goal 3:39 into the third overtime gave the visitors a 4-3 victory. The game took four hours and 54 minutes and was (at the time) the second longest in ECHL history. Admirals Hall of Famer Victor Gervais joined Joel Poirier and Alex Alexeev on the scoresheet during regulation. Goaltender Sebastien Charpentier provided one of his gutsiest showings of the year, turning aside 50 Nailers shots just hours after learning of the death of his grandmother. The Admirals were out-shot 53-34. But the 34th shot made the difference, as Ceman redirected defenseman Chad Ackerman’s shot past Nailers netminder Dave Brumby to decide the outcome. Assistant Coach Al MacIsaac ran the Admirals’ bench for a third straight game as Head Coach John Brophy served the final game of a suspension stemming from a post-game altercation against Roanoke on April 15th.

Game Two marked another one-goal game in Wheeling, as the Admirals were beaten 2-1 by the Nailers on April 24. Netminder Jason Saal, playing for the first time in nearly a month, made 46 saves in a losing effort. Saal started in the stead of Charpentier, who missed the game to attend his grandmother’s funeral. The Admirals played most of the third period without Gervais, who was knocked unconscious by an errant stick. Gervais was on the ice more than five minutes before finally getting up. Ceman scored the only goal for Hampton Roads, who mustered only 14 shots on goal in the contest.

The next day, Alex Matvichuk’s wrist shot 1:31 into overtime lifted the Nailers past the Admirals 4-3 at the Wheeling Civic Center. The Admirals forced the overtime with just 21 seconds left in regulation when defenseman Chris Phelps scored a dramatic, shorthanded goal with the goaltender pulled. Moments before, Coach Brophy asked the referee to check the legality of the stick of the Wheeling goalie. The Admirals were penalized for delay of game when the stick was found to be legal. Forwards Rob Bonneau and Joel Poirier scored the other goals for Hampton Roads. Saal suffered a second straight loss in net since taking over for Charpentier, who had not yet returned to the lineup. Hampton Roads also played without Gervais, who suffered a concussion in Game Two.

Dominic MaltaisThe Admirals returned home to Scope on April 30 and leveled the best-of-seven series at two wins apiece with a 3-1 triumph over the Nailers in Game Four. Forward Dominic Maltais, who had been limited to just one goal in 11 prior playoff games, netted two markers while Bonneau scored once. The Admirals also saw the return of two key cogs in their playoff run, as Charpentier returned to claim his fifth straight playoff win with a 27-save effort and Gervais returned after recovering from his concussion.

A crowd of over 7,800 fans left Scope happy on May 2, as Admirals Hall of Famer “Rocket” Rod Taylor’s second goal of the contest 15:13 into overtime gave the Blue and Gold a 2-1 victory over the Nailers. Charpentier ran his playoff winning streak to six with a huge 48-save night, as the Admirals were out-shot 49-36.

Rod TaylorThe next night, the Admirals advanced to the ECHL’s championship series for the third time in nine years with a 5-1 win at Scope for a four-games-to-two series victory over Wheeling. Charpentier continued his stellar playoff run by making 43 saves for his seventh straight postseason win. Taylor scored twice for the Admirals, while forwards Dan Carney, Rob Bonneau and Alexander Kharlamov added single tallies. The win made the Admirals 7-0 at Scope in the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs.

The same night, the Pensacola Ice Pilots defeated the Louisiana Icegators 5-4 in double overtime to clinch the Southern Conference Finals four-games-to-two. The Ice Pilots were the fourth seed in the Southern Conference. They had defeated the New Orleans Brass in Round One and the Charlotte Checkers in Round Two before dispatching the IceGators in the third round. Pensacola’s trio of Nick Stajduhar, Brendan Concannon and Mike Sullivan would finish the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs 1-2-3 in scoring with J.F. Aube, Brian LaFleur and Valentino Passarelli close behind them. Ice Pilots goaltender Sean Gauthier sported a 10-3 record entering the Finals – second only to Charpentier’s 10-2 record at that time

The Kelly Cup Finals began on May 8 at the Pensacola Civic Center. Trailing 4-3 with under 11 minutes to go, the Ice Pilots tallied four unanswered goals to top the Admirals 7-4. Hampton Roads built a 3-1 edge in the second period on goals by Kharlamov, Ceman and Ackerman before Pensacola scored twice late in the period to tie the contest. Center Vadim Epanchintsev put the visitors back on top at 7:03 of the final period before the Ice Pilots’ offense erupted. Brian LaFleur netted a hat trick for the home team. J.F. Aube added two goals for Pensacola. Charpentier made 42 saves in the loss while Gautheir made 31 saves in the victory.

The next night, Charpentier stopped 46 of 47 shots to lead the Admirals past the Ice Pilots 3-1 at a sold-out Pensacola Civic Center. With the win, Hampton Roads squared the series at one win apiece. Epanchintsev staked the Blue and Gold to a 1-0 lead after one period before Ceman bagged a pair of tallies in the second stanza. Steven Low netted a power play marker for the home team in the second period for their only tally against the Admirals and Charpentier, who out-dueled Gauthier for the win despite facing 47 shots to Gautheir’s 40.

The Finals shifted north to Hampton Roads on May 12, where the Ice Pilots handed the Admirals their first defeat at home in the 1998 playoffs with a 1-0 overtime decision. The setback put the Blue and Gold behind in the series two-games-to-one. After both clubs battled though more than 76 minutes of scoreless action, Brendan Concannon scored on a short backhander to give Pensacola the victory. Charpentier turned aside Pensacola’s first 47 shots in front of 8,101 fans at Scope. Gauthier denied all 44 of the Admirals’ shots – including an Epanchintsev penalty shot attempt in the first period.

The teams were back on the ice at Scope less than 24 hours later, with the home team coming out on top 4-2 to level the series at two games apiece. Ceman racked up his second multi-goal game of the Kelly Cup Finals. Maltais also scored, and defensemen Drew Palmer and Alex Alexeev each added two assists for Hampton Roads. The Admirals trailed 2-1 entering the final period before Ceman scored twice to put his club on top. Gervais added a late insurance goal. Charpentier made 25 saves to claim another win in goal, while Gauthier took the loss with 30 saves.

On Monday, May 18, a sold-out Scope witnessed the final home game of the 1997-98 season, with the Admirals coming out on top of the Ice Pilots 7-3. The Game Five victory gave the Admirals a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven series. Boris Zelenko netted a hat trick before the first period was over, as the home team netted five goals in the opening period alone. Taylor and Bonneau also scored first period goals. When Maltais and Gervais added goals in the second period, the Blue and Gold enjoyed a 7-0 advantage before the visitors ever got on the board. Charpentier made 30 saves to nail down his 13th playoff win of the year. Gauthier made eight saves on 13 shots through just 20 minutes before he was pulled. Epanchintsev, Kharlamov and Ackerman each chipped in two assists. Brian LaFleur had two goals for Pensacola. 8,974 rowdy fans jammed Scope in the first home playoff sellout ever for Hampton Roads.

Chris PhelpsTwo days later, the Admirals traveled to Pensacola with a pair of chances to clinch an unprecedented three ECHL championships. However, they would only need one, as the Admirals clinched the 1998 Kelly Cup on Wednesday, May 20 at the Pensacola Civic Center with a 4-1 win. It was Playoff MVP Sebastien Charpentier spearheading the victory once again with a 34-save performance. Charpentier, who dedicated the award to his grandmother, went 14-4 in the playoffs with a sparkling 1.93 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Pensacola took a 1-0 lead early in the first period before Boris Zelenko knotted the score at 7:18 of the opening period. Rod Taylor then netted what turned out to be the Cup-clinching goal at 18:21 of the first period. Alex Alexeev netted a second period goal and Victor Gervais capped scoring on the game, series and season with a third period marker. Chris Phelps added three helpers, while Alexander Kharlamov had two assists.

The Admirals won the series four-games-to-two for their unprecedented third ECHL title. No other ECHL team has won more than two championships, although the South Carolina Stingrays will aim to tie the Admirals’ mark as they begin their quest for a third ECHL championship tomorrow against the Alaska Aces.

Head Coach John Brophy notched his 895th all-time victory and his ECHL-best third title in the team’s ninth season. Only three other coaches have more than one ECHL title on their résumé: John Marks, Chris McSorley and former Admirals head coach Mike Haviland. Brophy finished his professional coaching career with 1,027 victories, the second highest amount in all of professional hockey, behind only Scotty Bowman. The ECHL’s Coach of the Year Award now bears his name.

Alex AlexeevThe Admirals were led offensively by Victor Gervais, whose 18 points on seven goals and 11 assists ranked him fifth in playoff scoring. Dan Ceman’s 11 goals tied him for second in the ECHL while Rob Bonneau’s four game-winning goals led all players in the 1998 Kelly Cup Playoffs. The Admirals nailed down the top three plus/minus ratings in the playoffs, with Alex Alexeev and Chad Ackerman (+15) tied for the lead and Rob Bonneau (+14) close behind. The 1998 ECHL Playoffs MVP, Sebastien Charpentier, led the league in wins, save percentage and goals-against average. He would build off his rookie season and later play for the NHL’s Washington Capitals.

The Admirals, who had to win their final three regular season games just to make the playoffs as the 16th and final seed, became the first ECHL team to win 14 playoff games in a single season. They would lose to the archrival Richmond Renegades in the first round of the 1999 playoffs before bowing out in the second round of the 2000 playoffs to the Trenton Titans to end their highly-successful 11-season run in the ECHL. The next fall, the American Hockey League’s Norfolk Admirals began playing at Scope.

Special thanks to "The Voice of the Admirals" Pete Michaud for maintaining an archive of every game in Admirals history. That archive was utilized extensively in the composition of this story.

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