Admirals Aim for Long Postseason Journey
By Jason Karnosky
Milwaukee, WI--One year after missing out on its first postseason dance in 13 seasons, the Milwaukee Admirals are back with a vengeance in 2015-16.
Sparked by young roster deep with explosive talent, Milwaukee increased its point total from 81 a year ago to 101 this season, climbing over rivals Rockford, Chicago, Grand Rapids and Lake Erie to earn its first Central Division crown in five seasons.
“I think everyone in this locker room believes we can go deep this postseason,” Admirals forward Max Reinhart said. “Even though we are a skilled team, everyone works hard every night and does the little things right. I’m anxious, and I’m sure everyone else is anxious, to see how we will react in the first game on Friday night.”
There’s not one element on this Milwaukee squad that stands out, which makes the Admirals, a team that finished with the second most wins in the AHL with 48 (including 26 at home), a viable Calder Cup contender.
Offensively, Milwaukee is led by Kevin Fiala’s 50 points and Pontus Åberg’s 25 goals, but Milwaukee’s roster features five players with 40 or more points, and another four skaters with more than 29.
“We’ve got some skill up front, with guys like Fiala, Åberg, Vladislav Kamenev and Frederik Gaudreau, but you need to mix that skill with veteran guys to provide a calming effect on your group,” Admirals Head Coach Dean Evason said. “We have some forwards that are not necessarily older guys, but guys like Cody Bass (when we had him here), Adam Payerl and Jamie Devane that have helped us and they’ve combined well with our skill.”
Defensively, Milwaukee gave up only 193 goals, stifling many opponents along the way. Budding prospect Taylor Aronson anchored the group and posted a career best 40-point season, while rookie Trevor Murphy led all Admirals defenders with 11 goals. Three veteran additions on the blue line, Patrick Mullen, Corey Potter and Stefan Elliott thrived in Milwaukee this season, while the emerging Jimmy Oligny turned in a group-best plus-14 rating.
“It’s been a really good experience playing for Milwaukee as the guys were very welcoming,” said Elliott, who was acquired from Arizona. “We do have a young team, one of the youngest teams I’ve ever seen, but it’s a good team and a good group of guys.”
Per usual Milwaukee’s backbone was its effective goaltending. Third-year Czech netminder Marek Mazanec enjoyed a bounce back campaign, but the big story of the season was the arrival of Finnish rookie Juuse Saros.
The Forssa, Finland native was outstanding in his first season in North America, posting a sparkling 29-8-4 record, the best win percentage of any goaltender in the AHL this season, to go along with a goals against average of 2.24 that ranked fourth. For his efforts Saros was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team, and also earned his first ever appearance in the National Hockey League.
“Anytime you have success in the season your goaltenders have to be your best players,” Evason said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have a choice every single night on who we put in goal, and it will be no different in the playoffs. We are very comfortable having either one or both play.”
Getting to those 101 points was an arduous task for the Admirals, whose revival took place in arguably the AHL’s toughest division.
“You look at the four teams that made it from our division, and you are not looking forward to playing any one of them in the playoffs,” Reinhart said. “We are happy we finished in first place, but we knew no matter who we ended up with as far as our opponent they were going to be tough.”
After a plodding start, Milwaukee raced through November and set a franchise record by winning 10 games in a row, capped by a 6-3 demolition of San Antonio just before Thanksgiving. From January 3-January 9, the Admirals endured their longest swoon of the season (four games), but by March the Admirals’ ship caught a strong tailwind. The result was a franchise-record tying 13-game points streak stretching from March 13 until the Admirals’ 3-1 win over Chicago on April 12.
In the process Milwaukee clinched the Central Division.
“We didn’t necessarily start out too well, but we had a couple of big winning streaks during the season,” Reinhart said. “It was a tight playoff race until the end when we kind of pulled away with another good streak. We are very happy about where we are heading into the playoffs.”
Even after Milwaukee’s history setting season, just 11 points separate the Admirals from fourth-place Grand Rapids. The streaky Griffins, owners of astonishing 13 and 15 straight victory stretches in 2015-16, will be Milwaukee’s first-round opponent in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“When a team wins that many games in a row it means that it is a dangerous club capable of getting hot,” Rienhart said of the Admirals’ first-round adversary. “We have a lot respect for Grand Rapids and the games we’ve played against them have been very tight and competitive.”
Despite earning the division’s last playoff spot as a wild card, the Griffins posted the Central’s best goal differential this season (+43). Grand Rapids’ 238-goal total also topped the division, paced by Eric Tangradi’s 28 tallies, Martin Frk’s 27 and Anthony Mantha’s 21. The Griffins best producer was its pint-sized leading scorer Andy Miele, who ranked sixth in the league with 62 points.
“We’re both similar hockey clubs as each team has a little mix of youth and veterans, and certainly a lot of skill,” Evason said. “They play the game fast, and we like to play the game fast and with a lot of pace, so it should be a great series.”
Where Grand Rapids is especially stout is at the top of its blue line, where rookie Robbie Russo turned in a magnificent first season. The 23-year-old joined Saros on the AHL’s All-Rookie team after posting a staggering plus-40 campaign (as well as 39 points). Goaltender Jared Coreau will likely get the first shot at shutting down Milwaukee after posting a record of 29-15-2, with a .922 save percentage and 2.43 goals against average this season.
The Admirals will certainly have its hands full in the first round, where teams must survive a hurried best-of-five clash. In such a short series a slow start can be fatal, something Milwaukee knows far too well as the team was dispatched in the first round during its last three postseason appearances.
“With a five-game series being as short as that is, the first two games are the most important because it’s pretty difficult to comeback from a 1-0 or 2-0 deficit,” Reinhart said. “Home-ice advantage will help us a lot since it is such a short series.”
Elliott believes his new team has the make-up of a Calder Cup contender.
“We have a really good team here and we have lots of skill, plus some guys with some grit,” Elliott said. “I think we have a very good chance of making a run and going very far in the playoffs.”
Evason believes his team’s primed for a fruitful spring.
“The way the the season unfolded for us, and the way we played, if we can find the consistency we had during the year in the playoffs, we will give ourselves a good opportunity to have success,” Evason said.
The Admirals will begin their quest for the 2016 Calder Cup Friday night at the BMO Harris Bank Bradley Center.