1) Milwaukee Admirals vs. 2) Houston Aeros
Season Series: Houston won only two games in the team’s six meetings, both beyond 60 minutes. Milwaukee won three games in regulation and scored five goals on the Aeros twice. Five of the six games were decided by one goal, with the lone exception being the Admirals’ 5-2 blowout victory on April Fools Day.
Nov. 27 MIL 1 @ HOU 2 (SO)
Dec. 29 HOU 2 @ MIL 3
Feb. 18 HOU 1 @ MIL 2 (SO)
Feb. 22 MIL 5 @ HOU 4
Mar. 15 MIL 2 @ HOU 3 (OT)
Apr. 1 HOU 2 @ MIL 5
How they got here: Milwaukee defeated Texas four games to two; Houston swept Peoria in four games.
Here is Milwaukee Admirals coach Lane Lambert’s thoughts on his team’s second round matchup against the Houston Aeros:
“I think Houston has a little more offense than Texas, especially on the backend, and (they’re) are a very deep team with four solid lines. To have success we’re going to need goaltending and have everyone on our team collectively come through as a group like we have all year. We are going to need a committee effort to win this series.”
To read my feature on Lambert’s remarkable job coaching the Admirals during the regular season, click here.
Here is my breakdown of the series:
Offense: Despite the fact that Milwaukee outscored Houston 18-15 in the season series (including one goal for a shootout winner), the Aeros are the better team offensively. Houston is not the scariest offensive club in the AHL, but the Aeros are deep with talents like Jon DiSalvatore (team-leading 28 goals, 61 points), Robbie Earl (55 points) and Patrick O’Sullivan (team-leading four points against Peoria). Milwaukee found secondary scoring just in time to beat Texas, but the offensive key for the Admirals remains Gabriel Bourque (team-leading five goals and nine playoff points), Chris Mueller and Ryan Thang. Defenseman Roman Josi was exceptional as a two-way catalyst for Milwaukee against the Stars, and was that way for most of the regular season. The Aeros have more depth offensively, therefore, I will give the advantage to Houston.
Defense: In a tight-checking series against Texas, Milwaukee allowed the Stars little offensively, making the play a grind from start to finish. Roman Josi (four points, +7 rating) and Teemu Laakso were outstanding, as were Aaron Johnson and Brett Palin. Due to a promotion, Milwaukee could be without Laakso for part of the series against Houston, but Grant Lewis and Scott Ford are more than capable of stepping into the void. In their first round sweep of Peoria, Houston allowed just seven goals. After strong seasons, defensemen Maxim Noreau and Jeff Penner played well against the Rivermen, and Nate Prosser (+12 during the season) continued his effective play. Even without Laakso, Milwaukee’s defensive corps is simply deeper than Houston’s, so the Admirals should have an advantage here.
Goaltending: Against Texas Admirals goaltender Jeremy Smith was outstanding (4-2-0, 1.89 G.A.A., .941 SP), allowing just 13 goals in six games of action and almost making Milwaukee fans forget about starter Mark Dekanich. Dekanich could return in the near future, giving Lambert two great options in goal, but the way Smith is playing that might not matter. Goaltender Matt Hackett is trying his best to make Aeros fans forget about traded prospect Anton Khudobin. However, the rookie can get rattled by a stream of net-front players, one of Milwaukee’s favored strategies. It is hard not to see Smith and/or Dekanich vs. Hackett as something other than a clear-cut advantage for Milwaukee.
Special Teams: During the season Houston and Milwaukee finished 6th and 7th respectively on the power play, and 22nd and 25th respectively on the penalty kill. The Admirals got burned by Texas’ power play far too often in the first round, but the sample size is just too small to really figure out the Aeros’ effectiveness on special teams against Peoria. Because of the possibility of Laakso being out, and Houston’s multiple offensive options, I will give a slight edge here to Houston.
Playoff Experience: Houston finished last in the West Division with 80 points last season, missing out on the Calder Cup playoffs. However, the season before the Aeros went on an improbable run to the Western Conference finals, falling in six games to Manitoba. Milwaukee is a few years removed from their long playoff runs, but picked up plenty of experience for their young lineup against a battle-tested Texas squad in the first round. Meanwhile, Peoria failed to show up in the first round against Houston, so Milwaukee should have a slight edge in this department.
Coaching: Lane Lambert has taken four straight Milwaukee teams to the AHL playoffs, and made timely adjustments against Texas that turned around a tight first-round series. Meanwhile, first-year Aeros coach Mike Yeo is a Calder Cup playoff rookie, but carries an unblemished postseason record of 4-0. Prior to taking over Houston, Yeo was a key assistant for the Pittsburgh Penguins, making two trips to the Stanley Cup finals in his four seasons. Again both coaches have impressive track records, but Lambert’s head coaching experience might give Milwaukee a small edge.
Intangibles: Winning a series against Texas in the playoffs can’t help but give a team confidence. The Stars were playoff-tested and forced Milwaukee to fight for every inch. Meanwhile, Houston dominated a Peoria team that stumbled home during the regular season. The Aeros had a ton of time to rest and reflect, but also collected rust as the only team that swept its first round series. When the puck drops Friday night, 10 days will have elapsed since Houston’s last action, which is an eternity during a playoff calender. Therefore, Milwaukee should have a slight edge.
Final Summation: As another opponent from Texas, Houston will provide plenty of challenge for the regular season West Division champion Admirals. Unlike the Stars, Houston will not look like a mirror, and instead will have a decided edge offensively. Individually, there will be some great matchups in this series like Josi versus Noreau, Hackett versus Smith and Steve Begin versus Jed Ortmeyer, but as a team, I think Milwaukee is better overall. The Admirals are built as a club ready to grind in the playoffs and I am not certain that Houston will ready for that brand of hockey at least in the early stages. Therefore, I like Milwaukee to advance to the Western Conference finals with a seven-game series win.
So Roundtable: How would you breakdown this series and what are the keys for Milwaukee to prevail?
With Houston overly rested, can Milwaukee take advantage of the Aeros’ rust in games one and two?
Will the Admirals have to win low scoring games to win this series?
Can Milwaukee again get away with a shaky penalty kill?
Without Laakso, do the Admirals have the stronger blueline?
Anything else come to mind?