by Jason Karnosky
It has been a whirlwind rookie year for Admirals defenseman Spencer Stastney, and it just keeps getting better for the Mequon native.
After a first professional season in which Stastney got to play in the NHL for the first time, the speedy blue liner became a hometown hero for the Admirals. The 23-year-old scored the game winner with just 27 seconds left in Game 5 against Manitoba to push his Milwaukee squad into the AHL’s Central Division Finals against Texas.
“It was an awesome moment,” said Stastney, Nashville’s 2018 fifth-round draft choice. “It was a little bit of a broken play, but I just saw (Zach) Sanford going all the way and he found me at the back door. It was something that you really can’t draw up, but it worked out perfect there at the end of the game.”
Stastney’s lone goal in the series came after a spectacular setup from veteran forward Zach Sanford, who just happens to own a Stanley Cup ring as a member of the 2019 St. Louis Blues. Sensing an opportunity when a pair of Moose players ran into each other, Sanford slid Stastney a gorgeous cross-ice pass on a two-on-one that sent Manitoba back to Canada heartbroken.
“Zach has been a big part of what we do here in Milwaukee,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “He’s out there at that moment in those situations because of the trust that the coaching staff has with him. He was able to make a play for us.”
For the second straight year it took Milwaukee all five games to oust the Moose. This time the Admirals had to overcome a 2-1 deficit in their opening series as the Admirals won the last two games on home ice to advance. Milwaukee will now face the Texas Stars in the Central Division Finals.
“Coming into the series we were probably the favorite, but Manitoba gave us everything we could handle,” Taylor said. “I’m really proud of the series and how hard it was played by both teams. It was a great matchup, and it can’t get much closer than tied 1-1 with 2 minutes left in the deciding Game 5.”
Milwaukee played a strong game in the decisive Game 5, leading 1-0 until the final two minutes when the Moose pulled their goalie. Manitoba forward Jansen Harkins, who had a terrific series himself, scored to tie things at 1. But rather than crumble when the momentum shifted, Milwaukee found a way to respond and move on.
“I thought we played a heck of a hockey game, and I think our second period of Game 5 may have been our best period in the series,” Taylor said. “Manitoba got the equalizer and that was a hard pill to swallow, but just like when the Moose had that push in the third period of Game 4, I thought our group handled that well. We were able to counter it and get that goal.”
Defenseman Jordan Gross led all Admirals with seven points in the Central Division Semifinals. Gross, Sanford, and forwards Kiefer Sherwood, Luke Evangelista, and Austin Ruechhoff also had two goals each against Manitoba.
Things will not get any easier for Milwaukee as the Admirals will now face the Texas Stars with a berth in the AHL’s Western Conference Finals on the line. Texas, which finished with the best record in the Central Division during the regular season, will be well rested coming off a convincing three-game series sweep of the Rockford IceHogs.
“We were able to get that last goal, and that was a big win for us,” Taylor said. “Now we have to regroup and get ready to play a very good Texas team.”
Veteran Rhett Gardner led all Stars with five points in their Central Division semifinal, and he was one of four Texas players to record two goals in the series. That list includes Riley Barber, who led Texas with 32 goals and 64 points during the regular season. Marian Studenic and Nicholas Caamano were the other two players to score two against Rockford. All four skaters have experience playing in the NHL.
“It is going to be a good series and we are going to need the same approach against Texas that we had in Games 4 & 5 against Manitoba,” said Sherwood, who led all Admirals forwards with six points so far in the playoffs. “We need to eliminate their transition, because they are a pretty offensive team, and then hopefully we can continue to play our game.”
Similar to the regular season meetings for Milwaukee against Manitoba, the Admirals and Stars split their eight regular season games with four wins each. Both teams picked up three of those four wins at home. Texas finished with 92 points take the Central Division during the regular season, which was three points clear of Milwaukee. However, the Admirals finished with one more win (41) than the Stars did (40).
“We are playing the first-place team, so we go into this series respecting what Texas has done this year,” Taylor said. “We respect the team that they have, and we will prepare for that.”
The series has a personal twist for Milwaukee’s coaching staff, as Admirals coach Karl Taylor served as an assistant for Texas for four years from 2014-18. During three of those four years, Taylor helped coach Stars forward Greg Rallo, who now serves as an assistant coach under Taylor in Milwaukee. Admirals captain Cole Schneider also has a unique tie-in to the Stars, as he served as team captain for his one lone season in Texas in 2020-21. That was the year Admirals sat out of AHL play due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
For Milwaukee to knock off the Stars, they will need a fast start in this series, especially without the having home ice advantage this time around. The Admirals will start the first two games against Texas on Friday and Saturday at Panther Arena, before the series shifts in Game 3 to the Lone Star state for the remaining three games.
“We’ve had a new group here for the playoffs and I think we are still finding ourselves so far,” Stastney said. “The last two games at home we were just feeding off of the crowd, and winning those games was good for us and great for us as we move forward.”
Sherwood hopes the momentum Milwaukee is carrying, coming off winning a pair of elimination games against Manitoba, can help propel Milwaukee against the Stars.
“We compete all season for these moments,” Sherwood said. “It was all fun and games at the beginning (of the year), but then our season was on the line for the last two games. We came out and got wins in both of those games and that says a lot about our group. Hopefully we can take that experience and use it against Texas.”