Tonight, the Albany Devils can be No. 26, or they can be No. 1.
They begin the final weekend of the season by hosting a Norfolk team that has won a record 25 straight games. With Portland’s 2-1 win Wednesday over Connect-icut, the Devils are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, so the prospect of being either the 26th notch on Norfolk’s stick or the team to break the historic streak has been fueling their preparation this week.
“If you’re just playing three other non-playoff-bound teams, that game could lose the emotion,” said Albany forward Steve Zalewski, the team’s top goal scorer with 19. “We’ve had some pretty heated battles with Norfolk throughout the year and played them pretty well. I think everybody’s looking forward to the chance to end this record winning streak. It should bring a little more excitement to the game.”
After playing Norfolk tonight at 7 at the Times Union Center, the Devils will host Providence on Saturday at 7 p.m. and Syracuse on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Albany is the only team in the league with a winning record against Norfolk, with four wins in their seven meetings.
“If you don’t have good habits, you don’t skate, you don’t play that 200-foot game, and if you make those unforced errors, they’re going to make you pay,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “For whatever reason, our guys have seemed to understand that more against this team than maybe others.”
However, the Devils have lost the last three meetings with the Admirals, including two one-goal losses in Norfolk during the win streak.
Albany is 3-11-1-2 in its last 17 games, taking just nine points of a possible 34 since March 2, sending the Devils tumbling from the playoff picture.
The Admirals have not lost since a 4-2 setback at Springfield on Feb. 5. Of the 25 straight wins, the last 19 have come in regulation. The only win in the streak that required an extra period was a shootout win over Syracuse on Feb. 18.
The Admirals have gotten contributions from up and down their lineup, with 14 different players providing game-winning goals during the streak. Rookie of the Year Cory Conacher leads them all with three winners.
The Devils will look for contrib-utions from a few new faces this weekend, as two more forwards have joined the team on amateur tryout contracts — Union College’s Kelly Zajac and 18-year-old Reid Boucher from the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
Zalewski said it would be best if the youngsters pay no attention to what opponents are in the building or the win streak they carry. They’ll have enough energy coursing through them as it is.
“If you’re playing your first pro game or first weekend, you don’t want to be all caught up in the winning streak,” he said. “You’ve got enough to worry about with your own adrenaline and excitement for the game. I think it’s better for them to not worry about the opponent and go play their game.”
Albany is almost entirely healthy again. Forward Chad Wiseman (lower body) is shut down for the season, and defensemen Matt Corrente (lower body) and Alexander Urbom (lower body) are questionable for the weekend, but the squad is otherwise healthy, leaving Kowalsky with more options than he has had in recent weeks.
He’ll try to put together four lines to keep up with the four Norfolk will roll, four lines that he’ll hope can find the net a little more often than they have in the last 17 games, in which they have been outscored, 57-37.
“We’ve got to score some goals against these guys,” Kowalsky said. “They’re right up there with the best as far as goals for. They can really hurt you that way, so you’ve got to make sure you’re on your toes defensively. But again, we’ve got to find a way to score some goals, which as been a problem for us.”