by Jason Karnosky
After an eventful 2022-23 AHL regular season, the Admirals stand in almost the exact same spot as they stood a year ago, waiting to face off against the Manitoba Moose to open the Calder Cup playoffs.
One year ago, Milwaukee ended an 11-year postseason drought by knocking off the higher seeded Moose in a gritty five-game Central Division semifinals series. The Admirals would then fall in the division finals to the eventual Calder Cup Champion Chicago Wolves.
As much as things are similar this spring, the series script is flipped in many ways. Last year the Moose had the higher seed and the home ice advantage for the matchup. This year Milwaukee finished second in the Central Division, while Manitoba slipped to the third spot, meaning the Admirals will host the last three games of this year’s five-game series at Panther Arena. Last year Milwaukee’s NHL affiliate Nashville was in the playoffs, while Manitoba’s NHL affiliate Winnipeg was out. This year the opposite is true.
Very little separates Milwaukee (41-24-5-2) and Manitoba (37-25-6-4) going into the postseason, which means this year’s match-up will be just as tense as it was a year ago.
“I think every time we played Manitoba during the season it was really tight, and the last time we played them we lost in overtime (on February 25),” said Milwaukee forward Luke Evangelista, who finished third on the Admirals in scoring with 41 points in 49 games. “It should be a really good match-up.”
Each team won four of the eight 2022-23 regular season meetings between the two squads, with both the Admirals and Moose winning three times each on their home ice. After 72 games the difference between Milwaukee and Manitoba in the standings was just five points, 89 versus 85, while the Admirals earned two more regulation wins (30 vs. 28) during the regular season.
That narrow margin allowed Milwaukee to choose the series format. Much like Manitoba did a season ago, the Admirals choose to play the first two games on the road, before returning home for the final three contests.
“I don’t think it really matters who has the higher seed, as both teams are well-versed with each other,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “The numbers say select what we did with the format, so we went with that, and we will play the percentages. We know we are going to get their best game, and hopefully we can provide that as well.”
Add in the fact that Manitoba will be looking to avenge what happened last spring, means this series has all the makings of a classic showdown.
“We have that history from last season and I’m sure they would like nothing more than to knock us off and get a piece of us because we got a piece of them last year,” Taylor said. “It’s going to be a really hard series.”
Alex Limoges led the Moose during the regular season with 54 points, while Jansen Harkins paced Manitoba with 25 goals. Forward Jeff Malott and defenseman Leon Gawanke also broke the 20-goal barrier for the Moose during the regular season.
“They like to shoot a lot from anywhere, get pucks on net, and have guys driving hard to the net,” said Admirals goalie Devin Cooley, who won the first two games of the series against Manitoba a year ago. “As a goalie you have to be ready for pucks from all angles and be ready because they are going to be coming hard at you. You’ve got to control those rebounds and know where everyone is on the ice.”
While Manitoba doesn’t feature a lot of high-end scorers, their biggest strength on offense comes from their blue line. Three of the Moose’s top six regular season scorers, Gawanke, Declan Chisholm, and Ville Heinola, were defensemen.
“Manitoba has a big and heavy squad,” Evangelista said. “They have some good defensemen on the backend that like to jump into the rush and make plays.”
Much like Cooley and Yaroslav Askarov for Milwaukee, both Moose netminders, Arvid Holm and Oskari Salminen, could see action in the playoffs. While Holm and Salminen are both rookies, they play behind a very balanced Manitoba squad that rarely gives up scoring chances.
“Manitoba’s defensemen are really skilled and their forwards are really hard working,” said Admirals captain Cole Schneider, who led Milwaukee with 25 goals and 51 points this season. “If you are not ready to match their intensity, you will get behind the eight-ball right off the bat.”
While Milwaukee will have the home ice advantage this time around, they also know how important the first two games in Manitoba will be. Last spring Milwaukee won the first two games on their home ice to start the series, before eventually taking Game 5 in Winnipeg to survive and advance.
“You want to win every game you play, but coming home with two wins would be ideal,” Schneider said.
While there are many Admirals and Moose players that are familiar with each other, each team has several players that were not on their rosters last spring. In Milwaukee’s case, there will be seven new faces available to them compared to their final regular season game. Evangelista, and fellow Admirals forwards Philip Tomasino, Kiefer Sherwood, Mark Jankowski, Zach Sanford, Michael McCarron were all playing in Nashville up until the Predators’ last game. Milwaukee defenseman Spencer Stastney was also up with the Predators, while Egor Afanasyev, Kevin Gravel, and Jordan Gross, also logged late season minutes in the Music City.
“Being in Nashville was a lot of fun, and I got to live out a lifelong dream by playing there,” Evangelista said. “It was a great time in Nashville, but this group in Milwaukee is awesome, too. We were in first place before all of us got called up there, so we have a really good team here. We are looking to make a push this postseason.”
While Nashville’s end run for the Stanley Cup playoffs came up just a couple of points short, Winnipeg was the team the Predators were chasing for the final Western Conference’s postseason berth. With a 2-0 victory at the Canada Life Centre on the final Saturday of the NHL regular season, the Jets dealt the Predators a crucial knockout punch.
Milwaukee returning the favor and ousting Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate in the Calder Cup playoffs would exact at least a little revenge for the Predators organization with how the NHL season ended.
“It is kind of funny that it worked out like that, with us playing Manitoba in the playoffs with what was happening with the NHL squads,” Evangelista said. “But it was awesome for me and all of the young guys in general who were up in Nashville to play in those meaningful games right off the bat up in the NHL. Now come playoff time we will get even more experience, and the games are even more important. One or two bad games and the season could be over for us.”
Roster turnover is nothing new for the Admirals, who have effectively iced several different rosters this season due to injuries and players moving up and down. Many of the recent returnees from Nashville were part of Milwaukee’s opening day roster as the Admirals raced out in front of the Central Division with a fast start in the early going.
Milwaukee held that position for much of the season but hit a major turning point around the NHL’s trade deadline. At that point Nashville made significant changes to its roster. With players like Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi injured, the Predators made the decision to trade away players like Mattias Ekholm, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Tanner Jeannot, with the plan of retooling for the future. Several Admirals were called up to fill in the open roster spots in the Music City.
“It has been tough for the team in (Milwaukee) this year with all that was going on with Nashville and guys getting called up and sent down,” said Sanford, who won a Stanley Cup back in 2019 with St. Louis. “We’ve had so many different guys come in and out of the locker room here. To see the way each guy contributed to Milwaukee, and that we still ended up in a good spot for the playoffs was pretty impressive. We’ve just got to carry that over to the playoffs.”
With all of those players leaving Milwaukee in February and March, the Admirals added a few players of their own to fill out their roster, including forwards Isaac Ratcliffe, Anthony Angelo, and Austin Ruechhoff. The additions helped stabilize Milwaukee and were appreciated by the holdovers.
“I think you’ve got to give credit to our head coach Karl Taylor and all the staff here, because they’ve had to teach the new players all new systems and make sure everyone was on the same page,” Cooley said. “I think they’ve done a really good job with that. We never really faltered (after the trade deadline) but continued to push forward.”
The new additions helped Milwaukee go on a crucial six-game win streak late in the season. Those wins helped the Admirals avoid the play-in round of the postseason and set up another matchup with Manitoba.
“We spent like 30 hours on the bus for a Canada road trip late in the season, and during that trip we came out with four wins,” Sanford said. “It is stuff like that brings teams together. The grind of this year has brought this team really close. The teams that always seem to go the deepest are also the tightest teams on and off the ice.”
With all of the new additions and the talent returning from Nashville, Taylor will have to perform a juggling act to ice the best roster he can for the postseason.
“The group understands the situation with the number of players we have and the difficult decisions that we have to make for the postseason,” Taylor said. “We are going to focus on making the best ones we can. We’ve got the band back together, but now we have to make sure everyone is playing the right instrument.”
Schneider thinks that Milwaukee will be ready to go, no matter who is in the Admirals’ playoff lineup.
“We were a pretty tight knit group before all of those guys got called up, and we were happy to see all of those guys come back through the door,” Schneider said. “Those guys all have great personalities, and they all bring something different to the table. We are happy to have those guys back, but we are going to have to be ready to go, no matter who is in the room. There are no excuses this time of the year, and that is why it’s everyone’s favorite time of the year.”
Game 1 of Milwaukee’s first round matchup against Manitoba starts this Friday in Winnipeg. The Moose and Admirals will then shift back to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Wednesday, May 3.