Around the second time Milwaukee got kicked in the teeth by Grand Rapids on home ice, doubts started creeping in about the Admirals’ chances of an 11th straight playoff berth, much as they did at a similar time last year.
However, when the Admirals/Predators made several key transactions down the stretch, and goaltender Magnus Hellberg got hot, my expectations for this constantly overachieving club rose. Little did I know that Milwaukee would need a final run of 15-4-1-0 in order claim the eighth and final playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference, needing to sweep its last four contests to overcome hard-charging, nemesis Rockford.
The Admirals managed to do just that, winning their final two games in shutouts to boot, to claim a playoff spot on the final night of the regular season for the second straight year. Make it 11 straight berths and ten straight 40 or more win seasons, as my feature on MilwaukeeAdmirals.com states.
Now Milwaukee gets Texas, about as favorable an opponent as a team can find in a top seed in the conference. The Admirals have just two fewer wins than the Stars this season, and are playing better hockey as of late compared to Texas. But how will the matchup breakdown?
1. Texas Stars (43-22-5-6) vs. 8. Milwaukee (41-28-4-3)
Offense: Without a doubt, Texas is is a deeper, more dangerous team offensively than Milwaukee. Currently up with Dallas, Matt Fraser has 33 goals (on just goals he has 11 fewer points than Milwaukee’s top scorer). Texas scored 235 goals this season, while Milwaukee put up less than 200, and veterans Colton Sceviour (team leading 52 points) and Travis Morin remain dangerous threats.
The Admirals counter at some point (likely by Game 3) with a full compliment of talent, and will have all five of its top scorers during the season in the lineup (Zach Hamill, Taylor Beck, Austin Watson and Chris Mueller). Brad Winchester also re-discovered his offensive prowess (27 points in 37 games). Slight Advantage Texas.
Defense: Surprisingly, Milwaukee gave up one fewer goal than the usually stout defensively Stars, (200 to 201), and much of the Admirals damages came during the January/February funk and four miserable blowout losses. Milwaukee shored up that aspect of their game with the additions of Scott Ford and Joe Piskula. Add soon-to-be NHL full timers Victor Bartley and Ryan Ellis to the mix (Bartley later in the series) and the Admirals are stout on the blueline.
However, don’t count out the Stars’ blueline quite so fast. NHL veteran Cam Barker, and future/current NHL talents Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn (back likely for Game 3) are solid, while Jamie Oleksiak had a phenomenal season. Slight Advantage Milwaukee.
Goaltending: If there is one place where either team has an obvious edge, its here. Simply put, Admirals goaltender Magnus Hellberg has been the best goaltender in the AHL since the calender turned to February. The rookie has lost just seven times since Feb. 1 in 27 appearances, posting an 18-7-6 record in that span, and the Uppsala, Sweden native racked up three shutouts in April when the Admirals needed them most.
For Texas, there is no clear cut No. 1 in net between Christopher Nilstorp or rookie Jack Campbell. Bachman’s been up with Dallas, making 12 appearances, but hasn’t played since April 15. He may get a start against Milwaukee in Texas. Advantage Milwaukee.
Coaching: Its been an impressive first season for Willie Desjardins in Texas. All the rookie head coach did in his first campaign was guide the Stars to a Western Conference regular season title after a last place finish a season ago.
Milwaukee’s Dean Evason earned his stripes coaching as an assistant with the Washington Capitals. Considering the lockout, it was a tough first season for any coach, but both did a great job. But because of their full season of success and an incredible 30-point turnaround, I give an edge to Texas.
Intangibles: Tough call here, but because of the Admirals end of season momentum, I will give Milwaukee a minor edge, but last year it didn’t mean much.
Who wins the series: The only two matchups during the regular season were won by Texas, but that should mean little on the outcome, considering how early they were on the schedule. Goaltender Jeremy Smith was a star of the Admirals six-game series victory against the Stars in 2011, but Smith is unlikely to even play this time around.
This series may get decided in the first two games in Milwaukee. Texas was the best team in the AHL on the road this season, going an incredible 25-9-3-1, while the Admirals impressed at home: 21-12-3-2. If the series splits heading to Austin, either team has a chance to grab momentum in three games in Texas. I will take Milwaukee in five games.
So Roundtable . . . How do you see the series shaking out? Any places where Milwaukee/Texas has an edge? Who will win the coaching battle? Am I crazy to pick the Admirals over the West’s top seed?