They were supposed to be headed to a Super Bowl party. But after blowing a third-period lead and dropping a 4-2 decision to Springfield on Feb. 5, the Norfolk Admirals decided to forget about the New England Patriots and the New York Giants and focus instead on themselves.
At a team meeting, the players vented their frustration and challenged each other to do better. Coach Jon Cooper told them to remember this feeling, as it was one they didn't want to experience again.
These guys sure do listen to their coach. The Admirals haven't lost since, and seven weeks later, they will skate out for Tuesday's showdown with archrival Wilkes Barre/Scranton riding a North American professional hockey record 22-game winning streak.
"It's hard to believe, a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Admirals forward Tyler Johnson, who on Monday was named the AHL's Player of the Month.
The 22-game winning streak is nearly three times greater than the franchise's previous record of consecutive games won (8). On March 18, they upended Charlotte for victory No. 18, which snapped both the AHL and NHL record streaks. And on Friday, they made it 22 in a row with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over St. John's.
The crowd of 7,348 on hand at Scope included former Admirals owner Blake Cullen, the patriarch of the Hampton Roads Admirals during the franchise's glorious East Coast Hockey League past. Cullen said the energy in the building brought back fond memories.
"The fans used to start their own cheers — Let's Go Admirals!" — without anyone telling them," said Cullen, who was attending his first Admirals game since suffering a stroke on Oct. 31. "The fans were doing some of that (Friday). It kind of felt like old times."
Cooper downplays the significance of that early February come-to-Jesus meeting. But he does believe that was the point at which the players took ownership of the team's fortune. He also remembers the Admirals having an "exuberant week of practices" heading into victory No. 1 of 22.
"If you had told me we'd win 22 in a row, I'd have said you were crazy," Cooper said. "But this thing has really taken on a life of its own."
Remarkably, they've strung together these wins despite the relentless amount of roster shuffling common to AHL teams. Only eight Admirals have played in every game during the streak. But Johnson noted that newcomers make it a point to blend in and continue the roll.
"No one wants to be the one that makes the mistake that ends it," he said.
The biggest reason for the Admirals success is, well, they're good. Norfolk leads the AHL in goals, ranks third in fewest goals allowed and is No. 2 on the power play.
But still, 22 in a row?
As the victories have mounted, so has the buzz surrounding the team. Attendance routinely tops the 7,000-mark for Friday and Saturday games, and local television reporters have started making Scope a regular stop for Admirals practices. Last Friday, ESPN even requested footage of the Admirals' latest victory for SportsCenter (although the clip never aired).
But instead of shielding themselves from the attention, the Admirals are having fun with it. Defenseman Scott Jackson's mega-beard has him looking like Grizzly Adams, but he won't even think about shaving while the streak lives. Good thing, too, as Jackson's beard actually has its own Twitter page (@Jacksonsbeard).
A few weeks ago, Johnson, borrowing an idea from his junior hockey days, tweeted "4's a fluke, 5's a streak" after the Admirals bagged victory No. 4. Johnson's tweets (@tjohnny09) have continued in this vein as the streak has extended, and the fans have caught on.
"After a while it started getting a lot of retweets and people really got into it," said Johnson, who's now claiming 22's a fluke, 23's a streak. "And I'm kind of superstitious, so there's no way I'm stopping now."
For all of the buzz the streak has generated, though, the most important accomplishment in the big picture happened without fanfare. On Saturday, while the Admirals were off, a St. John's victory clinched the East Division title for Norfolk.
"The playoffs, that's where we want to be at our best," Johnson said. "But for now, the streak is great. Let's see if we can keep it going."