Two years ago, they stood outside the visitors' dressing room at Scope, watching the end of practice for an Admirals team that had recently received the accolades that go with winning the final 28 games of the regular season.
Two days later, the eighth-seeded Manchester Monarchs showed the playoffs really are different from the 76 games that precede them. Manchester beat Norfolk 5-2 in Game 2 of their 2012 Eastern Conference first-round series, dealing the Admirals their first loss since Super Bowl Sunday in February.
The Admirals recovered to win the Calder Cup.
Fast forward to this weekend, when eighth-seeded Norfolk travels to Manchester, N.H., for Friday and Saturday games of a best-of-five series. The Admirals will face a team that led the Eastern Conference with 105 points, one fewer than Texas for the AHL overall lead.
"It's a whole different animal in that it's bonus hockey and sometimes things change," said Norfolk coach Trent Yawney of the playoffs. "They're a very good team. They've been in first place pretty much the whole year."
Still, the Admirals were 2-2 against Manchester, losing twice there and winning at Scope on February 28 and March 1. That could bode well for Norfolk because of an AHL scheduling quirk that gives the lower-seeded team three home games in a best-of-five series if travel between the two sites is more than 300 miles.
That would put Game 3 on April 30 in Norfolk, with Games 4 and 5, if necessary, the weekend of May 2-3.
That's down the road.
For now, the offensively challenged Admirals, who scored only 201 goals in the regular season - lowest among the 16 teams, in both conferences, that made the playoffs - became more challenged Sunday when winger Emerson Etem got called up by the parent Anaheim Ducks. Etem, who had 24 goals and 54 points in 50 games for Norfolk, was playing his best hockey the past seven games with seven goals and four assists.
He was a key in the Admirals going 6-1-1 its past eight games before a 4-2 loss Saturday at Binghamton, a night after they clinched a playoff spot before a sellout crowd at Scope.
Etem will join Devante Smith-Pelly - who had 27 goals with Norfolk - with the Ducks.
Headed to Norfolk are goalie John Gibson and defenseman Sami Vatanen, both of whom got scratched in the Ducks' first two playoff games. Gibson won all three of his NHL starts near the end of the season after winning 21 games with Norfolk as the No. 1 goalie.
But his return creates an awkward situation in that, while no one is saying so yet, he is with the Admirals to get playoff experience. Norfolk is in the postseason because veteran Brad Thiessen carried the club during its stretch run.
Losing Etem probably will mean more ice time for newcomers Nic Kerdiles, William Karlsson and Andrew Bailey, all of whom performed admirably in the late-season pressure cooker.
"As much as we talk about losing the guys, the fun part is watching these young guys grow," Yawney said. "You can't replicate these (pressure-filled) games in practice, and now they've got the bonus games against a real good team.
"Having meaningful games at the end of the year and playoff hockey is really important in the development of these guys."
So could a replication of events of two years ago.
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