Hot Admirals Ready for Playoffs
By Jason Karnosky
Riding a 14-game point streak (11-0-2-1 to finish the season), the 2018-19 Milwaukee Admirals (36-24-14-2—88 points, second place in the Central Division) are returning to the Calder Cup playoffs as the hottest team in American Hockey League (AHL).
Milwaukee’s terrific stretch of play to end the season, which included a remarkable eight-game winning streak, propelled the Admirals all the way from seventh place in the Central Division to the second slot. Milwaukee’s reward for that meteoric climb is home-ice advantage in its first round series against the Iowa Wild.
“The last 14 games we were preparing for every one of them like they were playoff games,” said Admirals forward Adam Helewka, Milwaukee’s leading scorer with 50 points. “It was do or die and we knew if we lost a few games we would not make the playoffs. Everyone kind of found a role and we were able to put it all together. We played Admirals hockey like we know how to play, and it was almost unstoppable.”
Despite Milwaukee’s incredible finish, the year as a whole was hardly all roses. The Admirals caught plenty of thorns in route to the postseason.
“Anyone can open the door for the players when you are winning every night,” Milwaukee coach Karl Taylor said. “Through the first 10 games I was the smartest guy in the room. Then we through some rough patches and I had to really earn my position.”
With a full Admirals roster at Taylor’s disposal, the first-year head coach’s team raced out of the gates. Milwaukee won eight of their first 10 contests to leap in front of the Central Division and the entire AHL.
“Our team was really good when I was playing for the Admirals,” said Nashville Predators forward Rocco Grimaldi, who scored seven goals and 11 points in his 10 AHL games before being called up permanently by the team’s National Hockey League (NHL) affiliate. “We started out hot, and it was a good couple of weeks for us.”
Thanks to a five-game point streak in mid-December, Milwaukee once again held the Central Division lead. However, a slew of injuries in Nashville and on the Admirals squad itself took their toll.
Milwaukee slipped to well outside the playoff chase after enduring a February slump. After defeating Manitoba 8-2 on January 26, the Admirals won just one game in the year’s shortest month, and suffered through a six-game losing skid.
“We went through a lot of adversity this year,” Admirals captain Jarred Tinordi said. “In February we hardly won a game, and we’ve pretty much seen it all during the course of this season. It is a real testament to the guys in our room that we are still playing. There is a lot of perseverance on our team.”
Throughout the middle part of the season the Admirals locker room acted like a rotating door. Milwaukee’s first-year General Manager Scott Nichol did his best to bring in fresh bodies to stabilize the Admirals sinking ship.
“As a management group we were very busy,” Nichol said. “With all of the injuries within the organization I had to get a little bit out of my comfort zone and go look for players. We scoured the ECHL, talked to AHL & ECHL coaches and talked to other general managers to try to find players for us.”
Notable in-season additions to the squad included Helewka (19 points in 24 games since being acquired from the Arizona organization), as well as fellow forwards Cole Schneider, Laurent Dauphin and Phil Di Giuseppe. Defensemen Vince Pedrie and rookie Adam Plant also made a positive impact on the squad after being picked up by Nichol.
“It was a little slow in the early going when Laurent and I came here from Tucson as we weren’t winning many games and the team was making a lot of changes,” said Helewka, who signed on for another year with the Predators organization on February 27. “Now to be playing the kind of hockey we’ve been playing lately and to get the great goaltending that we’ve had, it’s been a pleasure to be a part of. I feel like I’ve found a home here.”
Taylor really appreciated the work Nichol did to stabilize the Admirals during the season’s darkest days.
“Scott’s a very active and he is always watching games, looking for players and trying to do whatever we can do to increase our odds of winning,” Taylor said. “We want our players to develop in a winning environment and he’s made some great decisions for us.”
Leadership provided by Tinordi and others proved especially valuable as Milwaukee kept an even keel throughout the tough stretches and the various transactions.
“We have a really good group of guys here and that’s important in order to succeed as a team,” Tinordi said. “There were a lot of trades this season, and a lot of guys were either going up or coming down. It was important that we made everybody feel comfortable playing here. At the end of the year were able to rally and really come together.”
By March 16 Milwaukee climbed back within striking distance of the playoff race, but time was starting to run out. The Admirals did have one last redemption opportunity set up for them by the AHL schedule makers. Starting on March 22 Milwaukee faced a stretch of three consecutive games against Rockford, which at the time occupied the Central Division’s final playoff position.
“Going into that weekend against Rockford it was do or die for us,” Taylor said. “We drew a line in the sand and said either we were going to give ourselves an opportunity to fight for a postseason position or they were going to back break us.”
Milwaukee won all three games in regulation, including two of them on home ice during the team’s first ever Dads Weekend, and vaulted back into a playoff position. The three-game sweep resulted in a remarkable 12-point swing that proved crucial for both teams as the IceHogs got brushed out of the postseason.
“Rockford was a team that was sitting right above us, so winning three-in-a-row against them was huge,” Tinordi said. “We needed all three wins against them because it was a battle right down to the end of the season for us.”
During this time the Admirals enjoyed the brief addition of three NHL-level players, Austin Watson, Miikka Salomaki and Zac Rinaldo. All three players made an impact on and off the ice.
“When I was playing there, it was right into the fire and a really intense time,” said Watson, who scored four goals in his two games with Milwaukee, both key wins. “It was playoff time and it had been that way for a little bit for both teams, Nashville and Milwaukee. It was nice to go there, contribute and jump into a little bit of the camaraderie the guys had going.”
Salomaki picked up a goal and an assist in his three-game return to Milwaukee, all of which were Admirals victories.
“Coming back here (after an injury), I had to play hard as those were huge games for Milwaukee,” Salomaki said. “It was great because when I got back to Nashville, it was for playoff hockey. I needed to have meaningful games to play in right away so I could be ready to go back up.”
The jet-propelled Admirals proceeded to win their next five games to complete the eight-in-a-row streak. Milwaukee finally clinched a playoff spot with a 5-0 blowout victory over Grand Rapids in the second-to-last game of the season on April 13. One night later the Admirals’ epic charge culminated with one last 3-2 victory over the IceHogs to conclude regular season play.
Even though Milwaukee finished just three points ahead of fifth place Manitoba, the Admirals will get to host the final three games of their opening round, a five-game set, against third place Iowa. On the year Milwaukee posted a 2-4 record against the Wild in their six meetings. The Admirals did win the teams’ last contest, defeating Iowa 5-1 on April 6 at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. However, this time around the Wild will have a trio of NHL-level forwards on their roster to contend with—Ryan Donato, Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway.
“(Iowa is) a skilled team and they really play their systems well,” Tinordi said. “Early in the year we did not have a lot of success against them, but compared to the last time we saw them they are going to be a different team as they have a few guys down from Minnesota. I think it is going to be a battle.”
With Milwaukee rolling late in season and with every one of those 11 late season wins coming against division opponents, the Admirals will not fear any matchup in the first two rounds.
“In order to go far in the playoffs, we need to remember how we played to get to the spot we are in now,” Tinordi said. “At the same time we need to put that behind us as it’s the start of a new season.”
The first faceoff of that new season will come on Sunday night as the Admirals will travel to Well Fargo Arena for Game 1. Milwaukee is assured of hosting at least one home playoff game, Game 3 against Iowa, on Thursday, April 25.