Admirals Enjoying Historic Fast Start
By Jason Karnosky
Milwaukee, WI- No question, expectations were high for the Milwaukee Admirals this season.
Dressing in the home locker room on opening night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center was a full cast of talented players, including maturing prospects like Colton Sissons and Austin Watson, explosive rookies like Pontus Åberg and Brenden Leipsic and two goaltenders in Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg capable of being among the very best in the league.
However, it would have been impossible to predict just how fast a start the Admirals would enjoy in the franchise’s 37th campaign. Three weeks into the season Milwaukee had yet to lose a game, opening 6-0-0-0 to surpass the 1988-89 squad for the best start in team history.
“It’s been a pretty exciting start and we are going to ride (this streak) as long as we can,” Admirals forward Triston Grant said. “There are a lot of new guys in here, and it’s a good sign that we’ve had some good chemistry early on.”
The Admirals impressive run out of the gates included a 4-0 shutout win over Iowa, a 3-2 overtime victory over Amtrak rival Chicago and 2-1 shootout victory over new Midwest division foe Lake Erie. Milwaukee continued its hot streak in the coming weeks, improving to 10-3-0-0 with a pair of regulation wins last weekend over division leading Rockford and ex-Admirals goaltender Scott Darling.
“After the start that we had, 6-0-0-0, it’s hard to keep the guys focused, hungry and playing the right way,” Admirals captain Joe Piskula said. “We won a couple of games there where we didn’t play our best, and we took our foot off of the gas there a little bit. But we’ve been able to regroup.”
One player familiar with fast starts to a season is former Admirals defenseman Carl Valimont, who was a rookie on the 1988-89 team that had its record setting season opening winning streak eclipsed by the current squad.
“The memory that stands out from 88-89 is that the Bradley Center had just opened up and it was usually packed for our games,” said Carl Valimont who finished with 37 points in 79 games. “We had a ton of talent, plus a lot of young talent, on that team. The quality of our team and the atmosphere there with all the fans in that brand new building was pretty special.”
Valimont pointed to the makeup of the squad, which included some future and past NHL regulars like Ronnie Stern, Dan Hodgson, Randy Boyd and future longtime NHL coach Marc Crawford in his final professional season as playing a part in the team’s early success.
“Coming out of college it was kind of eye opening seeing all of the guys at this level that are loaded with skill and can fly,” Valimont said. “But I think what was the most impressive was how tough that team was. We had guys like Todd Hawkins, Ronnie Stern and old-guard Milwaukee defenseman Tim Malle that were on that team, along with Randy Boyd and Curtis Hunt. The more skilled players enjoyed a lot of space. Top to bottom it was just a great team.”
Guided by future four-year NHL bench boss Rick Ley, Milwaukee continued its torrid tear throughout much of the 1988-89 campaign. After a 10-1-0 start, the Admirals finished just two wins behind International Hockey League West Division champs Salt Lake at 54-23-5. Milwaukee then dispatched Kalamazoo in six games to move on to the Turner Cup Semifinals.
“That first playoff experience was great, especially winning that first series against Kalamazoo because we all know how hard it is to win a playoff round,” Valimont said. “For a young player like myself it was great experience for future years.”
Dreams of a Turner Cup that season came to end at the hands of the Golden Eagles.
“One thing that I remember was at the end of that year being really tired because I had never played in so many games in my career,” Valimont said. “(It didn’t help) that we were decimated by the end of the season. We were down to four defensemen against Salt Lake and had a lot of injuries on forward, so our team was competitive with them but undermanned.”
Valimont, who now coaches Milwaukee’s Under-15 Jr. Admirals, believes this year’s American Hockey League Admirals are poised for big things, just like the 88-89 squad was.
“I think it is really key to have that fast start like Milwaukee had (this year),” Valimont said. “Teams will make a lot of changes in the early going if things aren’t going well, but just playing that well settles everyone down. Guys get confident in themselves, enjoy that comfort level, and get to know their roles. It really sets a good tone for the season.”
Certainly, Milwaukee knows it will have to keep the pedal to the medal to stay afloat in the ultra-competitive Midwest Division. Despite winning 10 of its first 13 games, and allowing the least amount of the goals in the AHL, the Admirals stand in third place in the division behind Rockford and Chicago. On the positive side, Milwaukee has games in hand on every other AHL team other than Lehigh Valley and division rival Grand Rapids.
A good place to start making up ground is this weekend when Milwaukee faces its first stretch of three games in three nights, starting with a showdown with the Wolves on Friday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
“As long as we play gritty and hard with all that skill that is on our team, we are going to be really successful,” Piskula said. “If we play a well-rounded game like we have been lately, we are going to do real well this season.”