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McKeown, Ads Ready for Post-Season

By Jason Karnosky

Roland McKeown and the Admirals are preparing for another long postseason.

The newly minted father anchors an elite Milwaukee defensive group that stood out all season and carried the Ads (47-22-2-1) to the 2023-24 American Hockey League Central Division title. This week McKeown and Milwaukee are gearing up to face Texas and start their long road toward the Calder Cup as one of the favorites to win it all.

“We were kind of a .500 team to start the season, but then we really found our way and found some chemistry on our team,” McKeown said. “We went on that big 19-game winning streak in January and February, but then we took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit after we finally lost. Thankfully, we rebounded well toward the end of the season, and now we want to go out and win a Calder Cup.”

Along with captain Kevin Gravel, McKeown is one of two Admirals blue liners with AHL titles on their resume. The pair provided strong veteran leadership and anchored a defense that allowed only 193 goals this season—the third fewest in the AHL.

“Roland is a great leader, a great foot soldier, a great teammate, and the type of player you want your younger players around,” Admirals general manager Scott Nichol said. “But at the same time, he’s also not here to just babysit our prospects. He’s growing his career, working toward another contract, and trying to get into NHL games. Both McKeown and Gravel are a huge part of our team, and those kinds of guys are hard to find.”

With an 11-day break after the regular season, Milwaukee’s vaunted defense should be at full strength going into the playoffs, even if McKeown is running on a little less sleep than his teammates. Recently the 28-year-old became a father for the first time, as his wife Abbey gave birth to an adorable baby boy, Myles.

The proud papa enters the playoffs in a great headspace, ready to play big minutes for the Admirals against Texas, and future postseason opponents.

“Myles is our first child, and it really has been a cool experience to be a father for the first time,” McKeown said. “The guys, our team, have been so supportive of myself and my family. Having a baby puts a lot of things and life in perspective, and it ended up being perfect timing having the baby during the long break after the regular season.”

McKeown often plays with Gravel, and the pair is one of the most dependable in the AHL. Both veteran blue liners log heavy minutes for Milwaukee and are focal points of the Admirals’ stout penalty killing unit.

“It’s been awesome playing alongside Kevin,” McKeown said. “He’s been a vocal leader for us and he’s excellent at what he does for our team in shutting down opponents. He does a lot of our penalty killing and is out there for a lot of defensive zone faceoffs. Those aren’t the easiest minutes to play, and that will be an important job for us as we move through the playoffs.”

McKeown posted a plus-16 rating this season, while Gravel was a plus-two. Their postseason experience is invaluable for Milwaukee, and Taylor expects to lean on his two veteran blue liners in the playoffs— along with fellow stalwarts Marc Del Gaizo, and Adam Wilsby.

“Both Roland and Kevin, they’ve won Calder Cups, so we are going to lean on them a lot this spring and pick their brains on different things just like we did last year,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “They are veteran guys and leaders on the backend for us. Then we have Wilsby and third-year man Marc Del Gaizo, so our group is strong. Our defense is our strength again going into the playoffs.”

Both McKeown and Gravel played a big role in the Admirals team record setting run in January and February. McKeown played in every game of the 19-game winning streak, the AHL’s second longest all-time, and had a three-game point streak of his own from January 20-26. McKeown’s highlight game came on February 13 against Chicago, Milwaukee’s 15th straight victory. In that game, the defenseman scored the game-winning goal and added an assist as the Admirals routed the Wolves by a 5-2 score.

“Roland and Kevin, they know what they are doing and they’ve been here before,” Admirals forward Zach L’Heureux said. “Those guys are leaders for us and they’ve been that way all year long. A lot of our guys are going to be leaning on them for advice and support in the playoffs. No matter how things go, they will have the answers for us.”

Since McKeown turned professional in the spring of 2015, the 28-year-old has been a model of consistency. Every season since 2016-17, McKeown has played in at least 60 games in the AHL and has now posted six straight AHL seasons with at least 20 points. With six goals and 23 points this year, McKeown finished 12th on the Admirals in scoring and second among his team’s defensemen behind only Del Gaizo (34 points).

“I really enjoy playing with Roland as we play well together and are comfortable with each other,” Gravel said. “We both kind of know what each other is going to do on the ice. Roland jumps into the play offensively a little more than I do, and he has a little more of an offensive threat to his game. I’m fortunate to play often with him, and hopefully we can keep doing that for a few more months.”

Back in 2018-19, McKeown’s third full season in the AHL, he won the Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers. The next year McKeown took another step forward career wise, earning his first 10 games of NHL experience with the Carolina Hurricanes.

“It was definitely a great experience, winning a title with Charlotte, but what sticks out to me is that everyone had a role on that team,” McKeown said. “We had a deep team in Charlotte, but we were also able to stay calm through it all. You can’t live and die in the playoffs by riding the roller coaster (of momentum swings). Holding leads and making the right play in high pressure situations is ultimately important in being the last team standing. Whoever can handle those situations the best ultimately wins the championship.”

McKeown came to Nashville and Milwaukee in the summer of 2022, and impressed right away in an Admirals jersey, helping Milwaukee reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2006. The 2014 Los Angeles Kings second-round draft pick also played in six more NHL games for the Predators during the 2022-23 season.

“I’ve had a really great experience in this organization and there definitely is a cohesiveness between Nashville and Milwaukee,” McKeown said. “The Admirals are an organization that Nashville really cares about, and the Predators cherish having Milwaukee as their AHL affiliate. Young or old, the Predators are willing to call up anyone who deserves to be called up, and that goes for their draft picks, free agent signings, and for players that are over the age of 25 like myself. They don’t just give opportunities to their entry level players, but they give opportunities to guys like Mark Jankowski and Tommy Novak.”

After another strong season in Milwaukee, McKeown wants an even deeper Admirals postseason run this spring. Milwaukee’s road to the Calder Cup begins with a five-game series against the Central Division’s fourth-place team, the Texas Stars (33-33-4-2). The Stars were the squad that Milwaukee ousted in last year’s Central Division finals. A dominant performance from then rookie goaltender Yaroslav Askarov helped Milwaukee seal the decisive Game 5 by a 5-2 count.

During the 2023-24 regular season Milwaukee went 5-3-0 against the Stars. Admirals forwards Egor Afanasyev and Tye Felhaber each led Milwaukee with six points each in games against Texas. For the season, Afanasyev led Milwaukee with 27 goals and 54 points, while L’Heureux led all Admirals rookies with 48 points.

“Last year in junior I got to experience my first deep playoff run, and I felt like I was able to elevate my game,” L’Heureux said. “Going into the Calder Cup playoffs this year I’m confident … and I want to do everything I can to help our team win. It doesn’t matter how many goals you score, as long as you can come out with the win.”

Texas is paced offensively by Mavrik Bourque, the team’s leading scorer with 77 points. Matej Blumel led Texas with 31 goals, while rookie Logan Stankoven was the Stars leading rookie producer after a 57-point campaign. Remi Poirier is expected to be Askarov’s opponent in goal. Poirier allowed only three goals as the Stars swept away Manitoba in their three-game opening round series.

“Texas is a younger team that plays a bit of a run and gun style,” Nichol said. “On our side of things, we were pretty banged up going into the playoffs, so the long break will help us get some healthy bodies back to face Texas.”

One of the most memorable moments of the in-season series came earlier this month when Texas hosted Milwaukee for a pair of divisional contests. Milwaukee came roaring back in the opening game of the weekend, stealing a 4-3 victory on April 6. In that game, Juuso Parssinen, Jasper Weatherby, and Felhaber each scored goals in the last eight minutes of the game to help the Admirals overcome a 3-1 third-period deficit. Texas answered back with a 3-1 win the following afternoon.

“We recently played Texas where we beat them with a great comeback,” Taylor said. “Texas responded and we got their best game the next night as they were really dialed in. That was great information for us to collect as a staff as we prepare to face the Stars.”

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