Ads Hope to Continue Streaking in Playoffs
Make it 11 straight years of playoff hockey at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
The Milwaukee Admirals continued to build on its American Hockey League-best streak of consecutive postseason appearances after clinching the final berth in the Western Conference with a 3-0 win over Midwest Division foe Peoria on the final day of the regular season.
“Everybody knew what we had to do to make the playoffs,” Admirals goaltender Magnus Hellberg said. “We came together as a group and everybody did their part and fought for each other. Now were survivors and it feels awesome to have a playoff spot.”
The Admirals held off hard charging rival Rockford (which closed the season on a 20-6-1-0 run), who could only watch as Milwaukee pulled away for good in the second period against the Rivermen on Sunday evening. The win, the third in three nights for the Admirals, gave Milwaukee its tenth straight season with 40 or more wins.
“It was a grind coming down the stretch, but credit to our guys for sticking with it,” Admirals first year head coach Dean Evason said. “They got it done and it was a very exciting (finish).”
In order to claim the eighth spot in the West, Milwaukee needed every one of its 31 points in its last 20 games. It was the second consecutive year that Milwaukee closed impressively to reach the playoffs, after pulling in 23 of a possible 32 points to close 2011-2012.
Several factors saved Milwaukee’s sinking ship this season. The first was the emergence of the rookie goaltender Magnus Hellberg. After a timid start (just 4-6 through January), the Uppsala, Sweden native got hot in February, reeling off wins in 14 of his next 16 appearances. Hellberg posted three shutouts in that span earning AHL goalie of the month honors.
“(Magnus) is likely the most improved guy on our hockey team,” Evason said. “He’s come a long way. He’s got confidence and our group has (lots of) confidence in him.”
Hellberg’s 1.36 goals against average and .950 save percentage in February barely topped his clutch finish as the 22-year-old posted a sparkling 1.81 G.A.A. and .937 save percentage in the season’s final month.
“I knew it was going to be a (change) for me playing in the smaller rinks and (adjusting to a) new lifestyle,” Hellberg said. “Everything was new to me, so I knew it would take some time to get used to. It took longer than I thought, but it’s good now that the coin has flipped around and that I feel good in the net.”
The 6’5” Swede won seven of eight games down the stretch, including four straight to close the season.
“It has been good for me to have a lot of games in a row heading into the playoffs,” said Hellberg, who posted back-to-back shutouts in the season’s final two games to earn AHL Player of the Week honors. “I didn’t play a lot in the beginning, so I had to work a lot in the gym to get my conditioning up. Now I have really good confidence going into the playoffs.”
Hellberg’s emergence coincided with similar growth from the heart of Milwaukee’s roster. The Admirals second straight January swoon occurred as the NHL ended its four-month lockout. With key contributors Ryan Ellis, Jonathon Blum, Gabriel Bourque, Chris Mueller and later Victor Bartley making prolonged appearances up with Nashville, the Admirals struggled to forge a new identity. Milwaukee won just two games in regulation from January 11 through February 8, a 2-6-1-1 span.
Rock bottom appeared in the coming weeks when Milwaukee got uncharacteristically slapped around in four different blowout losses, 8-2 vs. Charlotte (Feb. 16), 7-1 at Lake Erie (Feb. 21), plus a pair of 5-1 home drubbings at the hands of division rival Grand Rapids in the first three days of March.
With its roughest patch behind them, the Admirals hit the gas pedal in the season’s final two months, going 15-4-1-0 to close the season. Ironically that period included several shakeups to the Admirals roster, as players like Daniel Bang, Taylor Beck, Austin Watson, Kevin Henderson and Mattias Ekholm made appearances with the Preds.
“It didn’t matter really who we had in our lineup, every night it seemed like we had someone different leave us (to Nashville) or come (here),” Evason said. “But we’ve continually talked to the group and said that whoever’s here when the pick is dropped, they play. It doesn’t matter who it is as long as they know what they are doing and play hard.”
Getting a taste of NHL action for the first time, many key Admirals came back to Milwaukee reenergized about their chances to move up to the next level.
“At the time of my first call up I realized the NHL was actually really close, and that all I needed was one injury and boom I was right up there,” said Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who’s got to know plenty of new faces up with Nashville in the recent months. “It made me work harder and set my goals a little bit higher to make it back to the NHL.”
The final key to the Admirals turnaround came in the form of four late season transactions. The first was signing of Madison, Wisconsin native and former Wisconsin Badger forward Brad Winchester to a PTO on January 22. The physical winger brought 68 points and 390 games of NHL experience with him to Milwaukee when he signed. Through 37 games with the Admirals, the 31-year-old has 27 points.
One month later, Nashville traded Admirals forward Jani Lajunen to St. Louis for veteran defenseman Scott Ford. Coming off of his best year in 2011-2012 when he was Milwaukee’s captain, Ford returned to an Admirals blueline desperately in need of some help.
Just nine days after Ford was brought in, Nashville picked up another former Badger, defenseman Joe Piskula, from Calgary for Brian McGrattan. The Antigo, Wisconsin native fit right in alongside Ford in the Admirals top six.
“I’ve been here a month and a half and I (got to join) such a great group of guys,” Piskula said. “Just the bonding here has made us really play hard for each other.”
With the additions of Ford and Piskula, two effective, own-end minded defensemen, the Admirals as a whole shored up several defensive zone issues.
“We’ve been doing our best to help support Hellberg and try to keep him on a roll,” Piskula said.
The final addition for Milwaukee was perhaps the most shocking. The Admirals acquired former first-round draft pick Zach Hamill on loan from the Florida Panthers. The talented forward stepped in as the Admirals leading scorer and immediately made an impact, tallying three times in his first four games.
All these elements combined to make Milwaukee (41-28-7) a dangerous team heading into its first round matchup with Texas, the Western Conference’s top-seed. The Stars, which dropped a 4-2 series decision to Milwaukee two springs ago, finished with just two more wins than the Admirals (43-22-11).
“Texas has a very good team, and they like us are possibly going to get players back from the NHL,” said Evason of the Stars, which swept Milwaukee in two early games this season. “We’re not a big matchup team, but we will try to get a few with our backend against their high end players.”
For now the key for Milwaukee is not to suffer the same burnout from a year ago. The then, red-hot Admirals fell in three games to the Abbotsford Heat in the first round of the 2012 Calder Cup playoffs.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey now for a couple of months,” Evason said. “Our players should be ready to handle the tight, pressure situations.”