By Jason Karnosky
After needing a goal in the final minute to knock off Manitoba in the decisive Game 5 of the Central Division Semifinals, Milwaukee Admirals coach Karl Taylor joked that he wished his team won that elimination game a little more comfortably.
“It was a good game, but I wouldn’t mind a 5-1 win that is for sure,” Taylor said after that game.
Taylor got his wish in the Central Division Finals clincher against the Texas Stars. It wasn’t quite 5-1, but the Admirals scored the first four goals of Game 5 against the Stars before holding on for a 5-2 victory. With the win Milwaukee advanced to its first conference finals since 2006.
“It has been 18 years since Milwaukee has advanced to this stage, so I’m happy for our team, our owner Harris Turer, and the whole front office,” Taylor said. “It was a gutsy effort from the whole group. Guys were battling and blocking shots, and a lot of people were stepping up in key moments.”
A crucial moment came on an Admirals power play 12 minutes into the first period of Game 5. While Milwaukee has struggled as of late on the man advantage, this time rookie forward Joakim Kemell blasted home a perfect set up from Kiefer Sherwood to give the Admirals a 3-0 lead.
“Kemmy shot that puck pretty hard into the net after a great pass from Sherwood,” Taylor said. “He had an even harder shot later on our five-on-three. He can really shoot it. (On his goal) we got a seam for him, and he blasted it.”
Kemell is one of five first-year Milwaukee players having a huge impact on this postseason run. That list includes fellow forward Luke Evangelista, goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, as well as defensemen Adam Wilsby and Manitoba series hero Spencer Stastney.
After playing the 2022-23 season with JyP HT Jyvaskyla in Finland, Kemell has been a revelation in his short time in Milwaukee. Nashville’s 2022 first-round draft pick had six goals and 13 points in 14 regular season games prior to his first ever North American postseason.
“It’s been a really nice run and I like it here in Milwaukee,” Kemell said. “Everybody is just so calm and confident. We feel like we can beat any team we play against.”
While the talented rookie’s game impresses in a lot of ways, it is Kemell’s rocket shot that is breathtaking. The recently turned 19-year-old leads all Milwaukee players with five goals in the playoffs, with most of those tallies coming via a nearly unstoppable one timer.
“When I was younger, I practiced my shot a lot,” Kemell said. “Every winter we went outdoor skating, and I just practiced shooting and shooting and shooting. I loved to train doing that. I just wanted to shoot it as hard as I could, and then later I practiced more of the types of shots that I would need in a game.”
Kemell’s Game 5 power play goal helped Milwaukee respond after losing a crushing double overtime game to the Stars. In that contest, the Admirals raced out to a two-goal lead early, before falling 4-3. In Game 5 Milwaukee essentially put it away early, setting up an AHL Western Conference Finals matchup against the first-year Coachella Valley Firebirds.
With the game out of reach early, Askarov made sure it stayed that way thanks to the best performance of his young career.
“I think Game 5 against Texas was my best game,” said the 20-year-old, who owns a 6-4-0 record in the playoffs, which includes a 2.44 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. “Texas came out and had a couple of good chances in the second period and had a couple of good chances in the first period, but the guys helped me, and we got a big win.”
In the clincher, Askarov stopped 37 of 39 Texas shots, earning praise from his coach in the process.
“What a moment for Yaro,” said Taylor of Nashville’s 2020 first-round pick. “Game 5 was a do or die elimination game, and that was definitely his best effort. I thought we did a really good job in front of him, but he made a couple of timely saves that we needed to stem the tide. That is what you are hoping for from your goaltender.”
Fellow rookie Evangelista leads Milwaukee with four goals and 13 points in Milwaukee’s 10 playoff games to date. He continues to show impressive chemistry with former Nashville Predators teammate Kiefer Sherwood, who has eight points in eight games after a strong playoff run with the Colorado Eagles a year ago.
The pair will need to continue to be at the top of their game playing against Coachella Valley in the Western Conference Finals. Stocked with prospects from the second-year Seattle Kraken, the Firebirds finished second in the nine-team Pacific Division with a regular season record of 48-17-5-2. Coachella Valley, which had seven more wins and 14 more points than Milwaukee in 2022-23, then knocked out Tucson in three games before dispatching Colorado in five games.
In the Pacific Division Finals the Firebirds knocked out the AHL’s top regular season team, 51-win Calgary, in a tight five-game series. Coachella Valley trailed the Wranglers 5-4 in the third period of the decisive Game 5 but got a tying goal from Jeremy McKenna. Andrew Poturalski’s only goal of the playoffs, scored seven minutes into overtime, sent the Firebirds into the Conference Finals.
“Coachella Valley is a dangerous hockey club, and they have four lines that can play,” Admirals assistant coach Scott Ford said. “They have a couple of dangerous guys on the backend, and their special teams are good, so we are going to want to have a good start to our game against them.”
Kole Lind leads all Firebirds with seven goals and 17 points in the postseason. Captain Max McCormick also has seven goals and 15 points. Veteran Cameron Hughes, who played from 2014-18 at the University of Wisconsin, paces all Coachella Valley players with 13 assists.
Another Firebirds forward Milwaukee will need to account for is Tye Kartye. After racking up 57 points during the AHL regular season, the undrafted 22-year-old contributed three goals and five points to a Seattle team that reached Game 7 of the National Hockey League’s Central Division Finals. In five AHL playoff games Kartye has two goals and three points.
“They have some good players up front that like to turn and burn, so it is not unlike playing against Texas,” Ford said. “They have some weapons that will sting you, like Andrew Poturalski, who is back in their lineup. We know him from Chicago and we know just how dangerous he is on the power play.”
Admirals fans should also know a pair of defenseman on Coachella Valley, as both Matt Tennyson and Jack McLaughlin played for Milwaukee last season.
“We are familiar with Tennyson and some of the leadership stuff he does with that backend,” Ford said. “We know that we need to establish our type of game and we don’t want to fuel their offense in this building. It is going to be loud in Palm Springs, and we need to be ready for it.”
Thursday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in California will be the first ever meeting between Milwaukee and Coachella Valley. The series then shifts back to Milwaukee for a clash on Memorial Day Monday. The Western Conference winner will then move on to play one of either two legendary AHL franchises, the Rochester Americans or Hershey Bears, with the Calder Cup on the line.
“As a group it was a great effort beating Texas, and this is a big moment for our team,” Taylor said. “However, we are only halfway there. Hopefully we have two more rounds to go.”