By Jason Karnosky
After an eventful 2021-22 season the Admirals are returning to the Calder Cup playoffs—with some unfinished business to attend to.
Few teams lost more on the ice over the last two American Hockey League (AHL) seasons than the Admirals. In the 2019-20, Milwaukee was sitting comfortably in first place in the league when the AHL shut down play due to the COVID-19 pandemic just a month before the playoffs. With the pandemic ongoing, the following year Milwaukee sat out the season and did not ice a team.
Therefore, the Admirals, who finished the 2021-22 campaign in third place in the Central Division with a record of 39-28-9 (good for 87 points and a points percentage of .572), are eager to pursue the franchise’s second league title. Even if it is two years later than they hoped for.
“We’re very proud to be finishing third (in our division) with where we were at the start of the year,” Milwaukee coach Karl Taylor said. “I think it’s a great effort by the group and now we are ready for the next challenge.”
That next challenge for the Admirals will be the Manitoba Moose, Milwaukee’s first round opponent in the Calder Cup playoffs. Playing four less games than Milwaukee, the Moose secured second place in the Central Division, finishing with two more points (89), two more wins, and four fewer losses (41-24-7) than the Admirals.
“They are a hard-working team so we just need to match that against them,” said Admirals captain Cole Schneider of the Moose, who finished with a points percentage of .618. “They are a good, (deep) team who finished ahead of us in the standings. We have to match them throughout the whole lineup, and we’ve got to be ready to go.”
The 10-game season series between the Admirals and Moose was extremely close. Both squads posted identical 5-5-2 records against each other. Manitoba went 3-2-1 against the Admirals in Milwaukee, but the Admirals won the season series north of the border with the same record against the Moose in Winnipeg.
In their last two meetings, both Milwaukee and Manitoba posted blowout victories over each other. The Admirals smoked the Moose 7-2 on April 8, while Manitoba returned the favor with a 6-2 drubbing on April 24.
“They play a hard, heavy game that is very similar to us,” said Admirals forward Cody Glass, who grew up in Winnipeg. “Every time we play them it is a good match, so I’m excited for the matchup. (Plus) it will be great to go home again and get to see my friends and family.”
While the Admirals deserve their playoff shot against Manitoba, the postseason was furthest thing from the team’s mind in the early days of the regular season. Facing injuries, and COVID-19 related absences, Milwaukee had an absolutely miserable start to the season. As of December 1, 2021, the Admirals sat in last place in the AHL, with a record of 5-12-1.
Things began to turnaround for the club late in 2021. In December Milwaukee rattled off a terrific run, winning seven of nine games to get back into the playoff picture. The play of Admirals starting goaltender Connor Ingram during that stretch played a big part in that turnaround. Ingram finished second in the AHL with 30 wins, posting a record of 30-17-7, with a 2.70 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
Milwaukee remained hot early in 2022, rattling off 11 wins in 12 games from January 17 through February 15. That sizzling stretch moved the Admirals comfortably into a playoff spot, which they never relinquished.
“We had a tough start, but we’ve been playing a lot better lately,” said Schneider, who led Milwaukee with 30 goals to post the highest total of his professional career. “We are getting ready for some hard games against Manitoba.”
A 7-5 Admirals win over the AHL’s top team Chicago on February 5 punctuated the run. Prior to that victory, Milwaukee lost their first six meetings against their archrivals from the Windy City, who ran away with the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy along with the Central Division this season.
While Milwaukee failed to keep up their torrid pace late in the season, the Admirals claimed a pair of key victories over fourth place Rockford to avoid the dreaded play-in round to start the Calder Cup playoffs. The first win came on March 29, when the Admirals overcame a 2-0 deficit for a 5-3 road victory against the IceHogs. The second came in Milwaukee’s final game of the regular season, when the Admirals held on for a 3-2 victory on home ice to clinch third place.
“It almost felt like a playoff game on Friday against Rockford,” said Glass, who led all Admirals with 62 points in 66 games this season. “We had a lot of chances, and it would have been a way different score if we would have buried some of those chances that we had. But that game was a great steppingstone for us going into the playoffs.”
Glass is one of many Admirals who will be counted on in the playoffs as one of only a handful of players on the squad with postseason experience. The 23-year-old has played in one National Hockey League (NHL) playoff game with Vegas and reached the Calder Cup finals as a member of the Wolves back in 2018-19.
“I’ve been to a Calder Cup final before and it was a great experience, but I think the key to the postseason is just to take it one game at a time,” Glass said. “Playoffs are long, but the more shifts you get in the more comfortable you get during the games.”
Having last played in the playoffs in 2018-19 with Milwaukee, Schneider is also eager to get back to postseason action.
“Playoffs are a different animal than the regular season,” Schneider said. “But we’ve been playing pretty well and practicing pretty hard lately. I think we are ready for it.”
With two straight postseasons wiped out due to the pandemic, many Admirals like Cole Smith (Milwaukee’s top rookie scorer with 41 points in 59 games) and defenseman Marc Del Gaizo will be making their professional postseason debuts. Del Gaizo is part of a young Admirals defense that continues to get better every game and will be counted on to slow down Manitoba. Milwaukee’s defensive group is anchored by veteran stalwarts Matt Donovan and Matt Tennyson.
With an injury to Juuse Saros, Ingram is up with Nashville and has already got into NHL Stanley Cup playoff action with the Predators this spring. Therefore, backup Devin Cooley will likely get the first opportunity to carry the mail for the Admirals in the playoffs.
Cooley will get the start on Friday in Game 1 of the five-game series against the Moose at the University of Milwaukee Panther Arena. The series will then shift back to Manitoba next Wednesday for Games 3-5.
The Admirals are hoping a fast start at home can propel them into the second round and beyond.
“I think we just need to stick to what we know, stick to our systems, and stick to what we do best (in order to beat Manitoba),” Glass said. “We’ve beat them before in their own building this year, so if we can a win couple at home that would be huge for us (in this series).”