By Jason Karnosky
The Milwaukee Admirals’ 2021-22 season is one that will likely go down as one of the most important in franchise history.
Throughout the Milwaukee’s return to play campaign in the American Hockey League (AHL), the team faced numerous hurdles. Time and time again, the team overcame those challenges with an unmatched resilience streak.
The Admirals produced impressive results on the ice and their players made major development strides throughout the year. The 2021-22 season ended with Milwaukee reaching the AHL’s Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2010-11.
“You want to finish the year off with the win, but to be able to go this far with everything we’ve been through it’s almost like we did,” said forward Cody Glass, who led all Admirals with 62 points during the regular season and then added six more in the playoffs. “There was a lot of adversity for our team, but we just became so close as a group.”
One of Milwaukee’s biggest challenges was trying to end its recent lack of postseason success. Prior to the season, Milwaukee had lost seven-straight playoff series. Slaying that dragon in 2021-22 is something that players, fans, and management will long remember.
“Milwaukee’s had some good teams over the years, but for whatever reason that’s the way it has gone in the playoffs,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “For us to break through in that area, I was very happy for the front office and the Admirals’ staff because I knew that has been something that has been hanging on them. That was a really good thing that we were able to accomplish this year.”
Going into the postseason, Milwaukee was in a tough spot facing a Central Division semifinal matchup against Manitoba which finished in second place in the division. With the Admirals’ usual starting goaltender Connor Ingram called on to assist NHL affiliate Nashville in the Stanley Cup playoffs—Milwaukee turned to backup Devin Cooley in net.
Cooley emphatically rose to the occasion, winning the first two games against the Moose on home ice before Ingram came back and won the clincher.
“It was kind of a kind of a whirlwind year for me, but it was a great development year as well,” said Cooley who stopped 83 of 86 shots in Games 1 and 2. “I had one of the worst starts to a season in my career and then one of the best endings to a season with how things went in the playoffs.”
Milwaukee finally ended its postseason futility streaks in Game 5 against Manitoba. Going into the contest, the Admirals had lost 13 straight playoff games on the road. However, the 2-1 victory in the clincher against the Moose ended up being Milwaukee’s top moment of 2021-22.
“As a group this year I thought we were really determined in the playoffs, and I think you saw that in Game 5 against Manitoba,” Taylor said. “We put up our best effort in order to win that game and move on to the next round.”
After ousting the Moose, Milwaukee faced an uphill challenge against the Chicago Wolves, the AHL’s regular season champions. Dealing with some injuries, the Admirals were undermanned against the eventual 2022 Calder Cup champions. Things got worse when Milwaukee lost the first two games in Chicago.
However, the Admirals had plenty of optimism that they could turn things around back on home ice at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
“The results didn’t go all that well in Chicago, but we thought we played better than the scores reflected,” Milwaukee forward Mitch McClain said. “We were a tough team to play against in our building, so there was no doubt in our mind that we were going to take the two games at home and force a Game 5 back in Chicago.”
Down 2-0 in the series, the Admirals kept their season alive with an impressive 4-2 victory on home ice. Cooley made 47 saves for Milwaukee, many of the spectacular variety, to earn his third playoff victory.
“I thought we fought really hard all the way until the end,” Cooley said. “I thought we had a really special group, and it was a fun group to be a part of.”
While Milwaukee earned plenty of respect in the playoffs this spring, the postseason seemed miles away back on December 2, 2021. At that point Milwaukee stood in the AHL’s basement, with a roster ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and the protocols related to it.
“Being where we were at the end of November, in 31st place out of 31 teams, to finish in the top eight I think our whole team would have signed up for that,” said Ingram, who finished second in the AHL with 30 wins this season. “It was a wild year with a lot of ups and downs, a lot of firsts, and a lot of hard days. But there were a lot of good days too. It was an enjoyable year and there was a lot to learn from for all of us.”
With a roster made up of 16 new faces since the team’s last iteration (2019-20), it would have been easy for Milwaukee to pack in the year in December. However, the Admirals started turning a corner with a solid stretch of play before Christmas. As the calendar turned to 2022, Milwaukee got hot, reeling off wins in 11 of 12 games from January 16 to February 16.
“When you look at the whole season, from where we came from to where we ended up, you have to be very proud of what we accomplished,” Taylor said. “We are pretty proud with how the players developed, but also very proud of how the group came together and stayed together this year.”
Along with team success, many players overcame personal hurdles and enjoyed impressive growth and development in 2021-22. In goal, Ingram and Cooley each hit personal milestones and were a huge part of their team’s success.
“Connor was coming off an offseason where he dealt with some personal things, but he fought through those things and had a great season,” Taylor said. “He played a ton of minutes and did a lot for us all season. He carried the ball, while Cools just kept getting better every day.”
Both were a huge part of the Admirals’ playoff run.
“Cooley stepped in and played great those first three games against Manitoba,” Taylor said. “We then went back to Ingle, and he was able to win Game 5 for us. When we went back to Cooley in Game 3 against Chicago, I thought he played great for us again and gave us a chance to win that game.”
Up front, Cody Glass had an impressive 2021-22 season in a new organization, leading all Admirals scorers before earning his way onto Nashville’s postseason roster.
“Cody Glass was a good example of what we were trying to accomplish this year,” Taylor said. “It took him a while to get going this year, but once he got comfortable, I thought his game really grew and he developed as a player.”
Forward Cole Schneider, at age 31, posted the top scoring season of his career (30 goals and 60 points). It was enough for the captain to earn a contract extension for next season with the Admirals. Rookies Cole Smith and Egor Afanasyev had impressive first full seasons.
“I wish the season was a little longer than it ended up being, but I’m going to take from it a lot of experience,” Afanasyev said. “I learned about how to handle myself in different situations, and how to be a professional hockey player.”
Veteran Tommy Novak took another step in his career with an impressive postseason before suffering an injury against Chicago. During the year, Novak earned his first promotion to the NHL and played in 27 games for the Predators. His first NHL goal came in a 3-2 overtime win over Chicago on December 17.
“(2021-22) was probably my best season to date and probably the most fun season I’ve ever had,” Novak said. “Our team really came together toward the end of the year, and we put together a big run. Personally, I got a chance to play in the NHL, which was a dream come true for me.”
Power forwards Mitch McLain and Joseph LaBate provided a vital element of toughness to the squad, along with defensemen Josh Healey and Matt Tennyson.
“Playing for the Admirals was a breath of fresh air, and an exciting opportunity for me that lived up to my expectations,” McClain said. “Playing (for Iowa) against Milwaukee for years, I knew how hard they played all the time, and I had a lot of respect for what they had going on here. In Milwaukee, I was given the opportunity to be myself and to showcase what I could do. It’s just an awesome place to play.”
Fellow blue-liners Jeremey Davies and Matt Donovan had strong seasons, while rookies Marc Del Gaizo and David Farrance took big steps forward.
Further down Milwaukee’s roster saw a lot of development strides as well. A few players that were part of the Admirals’ playoff roster joined Milwaukee’s ECHL affiliate Florida during the 2022 Kelly Cup playoffs. The Everblades eventually won their second ECHL title, defeating the Toledo Walleye by a four games to one count.
“Anytime you win a championship it is outstanding, and that is a real credit to (Florida coach) Brad Ralph and his staff and what they are trying to do down there,” Taylor said. “We had Zach Solow down there, and he led their team in points in the playoffs, which says a lot about the job he did. Jake McLaughlin was a good player for us in the playoffs and actually surprised us a little bit. He was a big piece for Florida in the playoffs. Xavier Bouchard was down there too and played well.”
Overall, there are a lot of reasons for Milwaukee to be optimistic, especially with many of the question marks related to the COVID-19 pandemic expected to clear for 2022-23.
“Right now, we are not sure what the team is going to look like,” Taylor said. “Management will do their best to build the best team around the new prospects and new players coming in to make sure we have the opportunity to do what we do here. The expectation here is to win and to get results, but to do it in an environment where development is part of the process.”
For Taylor and the Admirals 2022-23 cannot come soon enough. Milwaukee is set to open the season on October 22nd at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.