By Jason Karnosky
For the first time in 4,038 days, the Milwaukee Admirals have won an American Hockey League (AHL) playoff series. Last Sunday, the Admirals knocked off the Manitoba Moose by a score of 2-1 to take their Central Division semifinals series by a three games to two count.
Milwaukee fought off some serious postseason demons by ousting the Moose. Since 2011, when Milwaukee won its last playoff series (defeating the Texas Stars in six games), the Admirals advanced to the postseason in all but two years when the AHL’s playoffs were held. However, Milwaukee lost seven straight playoff series—many in dramatic fashion. In the process the Admirals lost an AHL-record 13 straight road games in the postseason.
After the game Milwaukee took a moment to relish the victory and the ending of those streaks. The Admirals then quickly shifted focus to the next task at hand—a Central Division finals matchup against the Chicago Wolves.
“Manitoba gave us all we could handle, but I thought we played our best game in what was the most important game of the year,” said Admirals coach Karl Taylor after the Game 5 win. “We’ve got three more rounds to go. We’ll enjoy this series win, and then we will reboot (for) what is coming next.”
What is coming next is Milwaukee’s arch-rival. Dating back to their shared days in the International Hockey League, the Admirals and Wolves have played nearly 300 games against each other. Fourteen of those contests between the rivals came during the 2021-22 regular season.
“We’ve played competitive games against them all year long,” Admirals assistant coach Greg Rallo said. “When you have rivalry games in a series, it will be anybody’s to win.”
Even with several shared postseason berths over the past decade, Milwaukee has not faced Chicago in the playoffs since 2010. That year the Wolves knocked out the then Lane Lambert coached Admirals in a terrific seven-game series to open the Calder Cup playoffs.
In 2021-22 Chicago ran away with the league’s Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular season champions. The Wolves posted a .724 points percentage during the year, winning 50 times in 76 games (50-16-5-5—110 points). Chicago is coming off of a successful 2020-21 season, albeit without playoffs. During the COVID-19 pandemic shortened year the Wolves featured a roster that included many players currently in Milwaukee. With the Admirals sitting out the campaign, the Nashville Predators and the Carolina Hurricanes both sent their prospects to Chicago.
“It’s going to be a fun series, and it is definitely going to be a hard battle against (the Wolves),” said Admirals forward Tommy Novak, who led the Wolves in scoring last season. “We played them more than anybody else during the regular season, and there are a lot of familiar faces over there for a lot of us. It is the same way for them. It’s going to be a fun series.”
Despite a long layoff, Chicago kept on rolling in the playoffs, coasting past Rockford in a three-game sweep. The Wolves outscored the IceHogs 14-4 in the opening round, winning all three contests in blowout fashion.
“They didn’t win our division for nothing,” Rallo said. “We understand what kind of team they have over there, and that they are hungry to win. That stems from their coaching staff and the way they go about their business. They do a really good job of motivating their players and keeping them fresh and energized.”
Early on in the season Milwaukee, like most of the Central Division, struggled against the Wolves. However, the tide turned on February 5. After losing six straight games to Chicago, Milwaukee knocked off the Wolves 7-5. The victory over Chicago came during a stretch when the Admirals won 11 of 12 contests.
“The Wolves had our number early in the season, so that was a big win for us at home,” said Admirals rookie defenseman Marc Del Gaizo, who scored a pair of goals in the game. “It was really nice to contribute to the team and get a big win against them.”
Milwaukee posted a 5-8-1 record against the Wolves during the season. However, the Admirals captured five of the final seven match-ups—several of which were of the physical variety.
“With how the teams are built, this series might get a little chippy,” Novak said. “The way we play is tough and they don’t want to back down to us. It is going to be a high intensity series.”
Cody Glass was Milwaukee’s top performer in games against the Wolves during the regular season, scoring nine goals and 12 points. Glass is one of three Admirals who are back with the club after stints with Nashville during the NHL playoffs. The others were forward Matthew Olivier and goaltender Connor Ingram.
“We just need to stick to what we know and stick to our systems (to advance) in the playoffs,” said Glass, who led Milwaukee with 62 points during the regular season. “If we stick to what we do best, we will be fine.”
Ingram was a bright spot in an opening round series that saw the Predators get swept by Stanley Cup favorite Colorado. In his first ever NHL postseason start against the Avalanche, Ingram made 49 saves while carrying his team into overtime in Game 2. Nashville eventually lost the contest by a 2-1 score.
Back with Milwaukee after the sweep, Ingram had a strong Game 5 to close out the Moose. The 25-year-old allowed just one goal on 28 shots in the decisive victory.
“Playing in the playoffs is what it’s all about,” said Ingram, who is likely to start Game 1 for Milwaukee in Chicago. “You get the same opponent for five or seven games, and this is why you play. Nobody dreams about playing in the NHL without winning the Stanley Cup or being in the American League without winning the Calder Cup. You play to win championships.”
Taylor should be comfortable playing either of his goaltenders in the second round against the offensively gifted Wolves, who were the AHL’s leader in goals during the regular season with 261 (or 3.43 per game). Stepping in for Ingram, backup Devin Cooley stopped 83 of 86 shots to win the first two games against Manitoba. That bodes well for the Admirals in case Cooley gets called on against Chicago or any future opponents.
Besides the goaltenders, Admirals with a hot hand going into the second round include veteran Brayden Burke (team-leading three playoff goals), captain Cole Schneider (four playoff points), and defenseman Jeremy Davies (four playoff assists). Veteran Milwaukee defenseman Matt Tennyson, who has 173 NHL games on his resume, missed the first two contests in Manitoba but returned and had a big Game 5.
“What can you say about a guy like Matt Tennyson,” Taylor said. “He’s played in so many games but he plays and fights through an injury. If you want to talk about leadership, that is someone who is setting the standard for our group.”
After a lengthy absence due to injury, veteran Rocco Grimaldi also returned for Milwaukee during the series against the Moose. With a couple of playoffs games under his belt, the speedy Admirals forward should be ready for a big performance against Chicago.
“(Rocco) played well in those two games, but I think he is just getting going,” Rallo said. “He definitely didn’t look out of place, but his best hockey is still to come for us.”
Novak was Milwaukee’s leading scorer of the opening round with six points. Just one of those points was a goal, but it could not have come at a better time. After a nice setup from Grimaldi, Novak scored a power play goal early in the second period of Game 5 against Manitoba to give the Admirals a 2-0 lead. It ended up being the series clinching tally as Milwaukee held on for a 2-1 decision.
“Especially going up 2-0 against Manitoba, we didn’t want to let the series slip through our fingers,” Novak said. “We did a good job weathering the pushes that Manitoba had (in Game 5). We got a good power play goal and Connor held them to only one goal against. It was a good team effort for us. Now we regroup and get ready for the next series.”
The Admirals will start on the road for the first two games against the Wolves, playing back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday in Chicago. The five-game series then shifts to the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena for the next two contests on Wednesday, May 25, and Friday, May 27. If necessary, a winner-take-all Game 5 will take place on May 29 back in Chicago.
“We are really excited for the opportunity to go into Chicago this weekend and to put our best game forward,” Rallo said. “We are ready for the challenge, and we are not here just to see what happens. We are going into this series, and we want to win it.”