Breaking Down the West Division Finals: Milwaukee vs. Houston

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.

Game Results:
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?

12 thoughts on “Breaking Down the West Division Finals: Milwaukee vs. Houston”

  1. Milwaukee will advance if they win the first two games of the series. Your analysis of a clear-cut advantage in Smith over Hackett is a bit overstated (just a bit), but goaltending will be the key. If Smith falters and Lambert has to go with Dekanich, it’s safe to say it might take him awhile to get into a groove. Hackett is easily rattled, but he is a cocky SOB and excels when he gets going (settles down, etc.). He is the key to the series (and the rest of the playoffs) for the Aeros.

    The Admirals can use the rust factor to their advantage, just as the Aeros did two years ago in Game 1. In 2009, I think Milwaukee swept Rockford early and allowed the Aeros to steal game one. If the Admirals take the first two at home, they win the series in five or six. Otherwise this thing is going 7.

    Will the Admirals have to win low scoring games to win this series? This is an easy one … yes.

    Can Milwaukee again get away with a shaky penalty kill? Yes, because the Aeros penalty kill will be shaky, too. I expect multiple power play goals from both teams throughout the series. There may be games where PP goals are the only goals scored in the game.

    Without Laakso, do the Admirals have the stronger blueline? This is the toughest question to answer. This is where the Admirals won the series with Texas, but Houston is much better offensively (crafty/creative/deep) than Texas. And I think you have to give the Aeros a little bit more credit on the blueline. Guys like Jamie Fraser and Kris Fredheim will not see much ice in this series, barring injury. The Admirals did not see a whole lot of Jared Spurgeon and Jeff Penner during the regular season. Spurgeon was in Minnesota all year and Penner has been solid as the guy acquired for Khudobin. Add Max Noreau, Drew Bagnall, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser to the mix and you can match that combination against any offense in the AHL. Throw in Marco Scandella, who has been out with a broken finger, and the Aeros should be a team to fear.

    Anything else come to mind? Yes, *if* Lambert is going to make the switch to Dekanich, Game 1 would be the game to do it. Houston has been hit or miss this season in games after a long rest, albeit a little better since the arrival of O’Sullivan.

    And the first goal of the game in this series is going to be big, too. The Aeros allowed it all four times against Peoria and swept them out of the playoffs. They KNOW that won’t happen against the No. 1-seeded Admirals.

    I, too, predict a seven game series … but if it goes that far, the Aeros will come out on top.

  2. Windsor Spitfires are down 3-1 and play again tonight. If they lose tonight, we may have Ryan Ellis in time for Friday!

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for stopping by on this side of the tracks, and thanks for the comment. I think you’re right on most of your points.

    I think a lot of Admirals fans are going to remember the most recent encounter in MKE and may get a false sense of awesome out of it. That 5-2 April Fools game where Noreaux and Falk were just called up, and the Aeros skated with just five defensemen…. kind of a fluky scenerio. We all remember Hackett losing his cool in that game. But the fact is that both teams are going to look a whole lot different this weekend than they did at any time in the year.

    Admirals fans can look at the season series and feel good about it….but the Stars owned us in the regular season, and a lot of good that did them.

    I think it’s going to be another entertaining series. MKE fans will probably say Admirals in 6 or 7. HOU fans will probably say Aeros in 6 or 7. It’ll come down to goalies, special teams, puck luck, and mistakes. I’ll go ahead and put in the request for a week’s worth of Jeff Smith….the more we play 5-on-5, the better I like our chances.

  4. Mike Yeo was not a key assistant in Pittsburgh. Pens fans (myself included) were thrilled to see him lose his job last year. Google it, and you’ll find lots of stuff criticizing him.

    For the last few years on his tenure there, he was in charge of the power play. With the weapons they’ve had, his system could only manage a 17.2% PP in 08/09 and 09/10. (Full disclosure – they are even worse now due to key injuries – 15.8%).

    With that said, Yeo is getting results in Houston. Having played there for several years, I’m sure he’s in a comfort zone behind the Aeros bench.

    As for my take on the series… It could go either way, but I’ll predict Milwaukee in 5. I’d give Houston more credit, but the game on April 1 sold me. With the division race on the line, Milwaukee outplayed the Aeros that night.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments on all of my posts today as Wednesday became an eventful off day for the Admirals. Andrew, in my short preview section I did downplay the talent of the Aeros’ defense and that might be a mistake. Lambert mentioned both Spurgeon and Penner as unknowns for his team, but he is well aware of their impact as players.

    With Laakso in the lineup, I think it is safe to say that Milwaukee has the best blueline in the Western Conference, but without him that becomes a lot dicier. However, that decision was based on my hunch that Aaron Johnson and Grant Lewis both can play better than they did in the first round.

    I have watched a lot of Penguins games over the past few years and am aware of Yeo’s criticisms. Some are founded, but sometimes having a lot of talent can actually stunt a power play. Look at Boston vs. Montreal: Tomas Kaberle is one of the best power play specialists in the NHL and the Bruins finished as a -1 (that’s right, no goals scored and one shorty allowed) against the Canadiens. Calling him a key assistant is probably too strong a word, but it is hard to knock Yeo for an impressive turnaround season guiding the Aeros, and their dismantling of Peoria. Say what you will about Yeo, but he was an assistant coach in a ton of playoff games during his time in Pittsburgh. That has to have some positive effect.

    As far as Smith vs. Hackett, I am perhaps overplaying this some and am aware of nature of a goaltender like Hackett, an emotional streaky player who can get hot. Smith, for better or worse, reminds me a lot of Tim Thomas, but he is the ultimate battler between the pipes. Though I did not think he was the difference against Texas (I thought Lambert’s line shift was) he played great at every point in the series when Milwaukee was struggling to score goals, and that will happen again at some point against Houston. But Smith was huge against Texas, huge during the stretch run for Milwaukee, and won a championship last year in the ECHL. That might not seem like much, but that Cyclone team he carried to the Kelly Cup was over matched in just about every series they played in.

    As far as Laakso, I do not know the whole story, but I thought it came with curious timing. But because of the fact that it was Laakso and not Johnson makes me wonder if Nashville needs a player to go in Game 1 against Vancouver (of course that is total speculation). If that’s the case, the Predators would be crazy not to choose him.

  6. Admirals in 7 mostly low scoring games. The Admirals rust advantage will be only in Game 1. Houston will adjust quickly or be out in 5. Crash the net, score a fistfull of goals and shake Hackett’s confidence. That is the winning formula in this series, especially for Game 1, along with maintaining puck possession.

  7. Apparently Trotz is calling Laakso’s call up a reward for playing well in Milwaukee. Makes me think even more that he might actually get to play. Otherwise, I’m sure Laakso would rather play in Milwaukee than sit in Nashville.

  8. While I’m sure the Ads and Ads fans are more familiar with Houston than I am, we played Houston a ridiculous 12 times this season (and were thoroughly dominated) as well as that many times last season. To myself and many Stars fans, Houston brings an special factor– call it the Andre Deveaux syndrome, meaning there are at least four guys– Peters, MacMillan, Gilles and Bagnall– with the propensity for cheap, blindsided hits that earn suspensions but also remove certain players from the ice. Valued rookies like Bourque are especially vulnerable if caught with their heads down.

    That said, even though they only played four games, Houston appears to be scoring by committee, which is what the Stars tried to do. You need hot hands in the playoffs, and Milwaukee’s got a few of them; if Houston does too, they have yet to appear.

    All that aside, Houston will need to get more shots on Smith, who in my opinion gives Milwaukee the general edge in this series.

    PS- I was playing NHL Slapshot the other day and the Ads came up– funny that their default fourth line on that game is Bourque, Mueller and Thang.

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