Milwaukee Admirals (44-22-14, 102 points, first place in the West Division) vs. Texas Stars (41-29-10, 92 points, fourth place in the West Division)
Season Series: Texas won five of the six head-to-head meetings, including one in overtime and one in a shootout, and the Stars won all three games held at the Bradley Center.
Nov. 20 MIL 0 @ TEX 2
Nov. 26 MIL 1 @ TEX 0
Dec. 11 TEX 3 @ MIL 2 (OT)
Jan. 22 MIL 1 @ TEX 2 (SO)
Feb. 20 TEX 2 @ MIL 1
Apr. 8 TEX 3 @ MIL 2
Here is Milwaukee Admirals coach Lane Lambert’s thoughts on his team’s first round matchup against the Texas Stars:
“I think we are going to have our hands full with Texas, (but the Stars) are a team that we feel like we matchup well against. It’s going to be an extremely demanding series–one that will be a grind right until the bitter end.”
To read my feature on Lambert’s remarkable job coaching the Admirals this season, click here.
Here is my breakdown of the series:
Offense: Neither team is overly explosive offensively as Milwaukee scored 226 goals this season, while Texas managed the fewest in the West Division (213). Veteran Greg Rallo (26 goals and 54 points) leads the Stars, who also get considerable contributions from center Travis Morin. Chris Mueller (24 goals and 50 points) leads the Admirals, but Roman Josi’s 40 points from the blueline is perhaps Milwaukee’s most impressive producer. Both teams win games by getting scoring by committee, but I will give a slight edge to Milwaukee due to the Admirals impressive depth.
Defense: The reason why Milwaukee finished on top of the West Division and Western Conference was due to their superior defense. No team in the division came even close to the Admirals in goals allowed (194 total, 2.43 per game). Milwaukee features four defenders, Scott Ford, Grant Lewis, Aaron Johnson, Teemu Laakso, with plus/minus ratings of +10 or more. Texas’ top defender, Dan Spang finished as a +5, but key veteran blueliner Brad Lukowich finished a dismal -14. However, the Stars allowed only 210 goals, second fewest in the division. Because Milwaukee’s top five defenders are unmatched, I will give the advantage to Milwaukee.
Goaltending: Unless Mark Dekanich makes a surprising return for the first round, Jeremy Smith (16-8-2, 2.26 goals against average, .921 save percentage) will have to carry the load in goal. Smith has proven plenty capable in that role, but Texas features one of the league’s elite goaltenders in rookie Richard Bachman (28-19-5, 2.20 G.A.A., .927 S.P.). Bachman showed signs of breaking down late in the season, but I would prefer have him in goal in a matchup against Smith, so here I see a slight advantage for Texas.
Special Teams: Though I was critical of Milwaukee’s power play at several points during the season, in the second half of the season the Admirals vastly improved in that all important aspect of the game, moving up to seventh in the AHL at 19.7%. Though the penalty kill lags behind at 80.6% (25th best), the Admirals were one of the league’s lest penalized teams. Of course Texas took the league’s fewest penalties, as the Stars were shorthanded only 299 times–a remarkable statistic. Neither of Texas’ special teams (PP: 17.1%, 20th; PK: 80.9%, 23rd), scares its opponents, so here I see an advantage for Milwaukee.
Playoff Experience: Texas made an impressive run to the Calder Cup finals last season, while Milwaukee was ousted in the first round by their nemesis, the currently-golfing Chicago Wolves. Both clubs are young on average, but feature veteran defensive corps. Due to Texas’ long run last year, I will give the Stars a slight edge.
Coaching: Bench boss Lane Lambert has taken four straight Milwaukee Admirals teams to the AHL playoffs, an impressive feat considering that only four or five teams from the ultra-competitive West Division make the playoffs each year. Meanwhile, coach Glen Gulutzan is in his second year with the Texas Stars, but has averaged 43.5 wins in those two seasons. Because both coaches have impressive track records, I will call this aspect even.
Intangibles: It is hard to top the intangibles Milwaukee has going this season. Despite featuring a lineup ravaged by call ups and injuries, the Admirals managed 102 points and claimed the top spot in the division and conference. However, Texas dealt with plenty of adversity after nearly claiming the Calder Cup last year. With Dallas out of the NHL playoffs, Texas will have a full arsenal of weapons to choose from. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has a huge pool of developmental talent eager just to get into the lineup, creating an intense competition for roster spots. But something just seems special about this year for Milwaukee, so I will give a slight edge to the Admirals.
Final Summation: Despite any worries about Smith in net, the rookie performed admirably in his recent starting duties for Milwaukee. The Admirals top five defenders are as good as any in the AHL, and Milwaukee employs a tenacious brand of north-south hockey that is a joy to watch. Even though Texas dominated the regular season series, I like Milwaukee to advance to the West Division finals with a seven-game series win.
So Roundtable, how would you breakdown the series, and what are the keys for Milwaukee to prevail?
Winning at home?
The play of Jeremy Smith vs. Richard Bachman?
Mueller, Bourque and Thang vs. Spang or Lukowich?
Lambert’s game plan vs. Gulutzan’s?
Anything else come to mind?