#4 Abbotsford Heat (42-26-3-5–92 points) vs. #5 Milwaukee Admirals (40-29-2-5–87 points)
Season Series: Milwaukee went 3-0-0-1 vs. Abbotsford this season, losing only one game to the Heat in a shootout. The Admirals victory on Nov. 29 represented Milwaukee’s largest offensive output of the season. That victory was also the AHL heading coaching debut for Admirals coach Ian Herbers.
Oct. 20: MIL 1 @ ABB 2 (SO)
Oct. 21: MIL 3 @ ABB 1
Nov. 29: MIL 8 vs. ABB 3
Feb. 24: MIL 4 vs. ABB 1
Here is my breakdown of the series:
Offense: Much like last year’s matchup against Texas, neither team is overly explosive offensively as Milwaukee scored 210 goals this season, while Abbotsford’s 200-goal total ranks as the second fewest of any AHL playoff team. For the second straight season Chris Mueller (team leading 32 goals and 60 points) topped the Admirals’ scoring charts, but Kyle Wilson is the team’s most effective play maker (team leading 32 assists). Abbotsford lacks offensive depth, but has two dangerous scorers in Krys Kolanos (team leading 30 goals, 61 points and +20 rating) and former Admiral Hugh Jessiman (27 goals), plus a talented play maker in Ben Walter (40 assists). With slightly more top-end talent, and full stock of players at their disposal from Calgary, I will give Abbotsford a slight edge offensively.
Defense: Despite losing Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis to Nashville, Milwaukee again has a group of blue liners second to none in the AHL. Rookie Victor Bartley (39 points, +12) has emerged as one of the AHL’s best two-way players, while Scott Ford (team leading +24), Tyler Sloan (+12) and Teemu Laakso are all effective veterans. Meanwhile, after starting the season in Nashville, Jonathon Blum (26 points in 48 games) is playing better and better in every game for Milwaukee. Brian Connelly (team leading 46 assists), former Wisconsin Badger Joe Piskula and Clay Wilson represent a talented trio for the Heat, but Abbotsford can’t match Milwaukee’s depth. Defensively, I think Milwaukee has a slight edge.
Goaltending: In goal Milwaukee features one of the AHL’s elite workhorses in Jeremy Smith (31-19-2), who topped the league in minutes played (3,283), ranked second in wins, goals against average (2.17) and shutouts (five), and sits in 10th place with a save percentage of .922. Abbotsford features a pair of 22-win goaltenders in Danny Taylor and Leland Irving, but considering Irving’s poor record against Milwaukee, Taylor will likely get the call against the Admirals. A red hot Jeremy Smith gives Milwaukee a clear backstop edge.
Special Teams: Milwaukee carries the AHL’s fifth best power play unit, scoring 57 goals in 293 opportunities, good for a 19.5% success rate. Meanwhile, Abbotsford has a similar mark of scoring 50 man advantage goals in 296 chances, but the Heat surrendered 12 shorthanded goals this season. As far as penalty killing, Abbotsford carries the league’s 10th best unit, successful 83.5% of the time. Milwaukee had one of the league’s worst units for the first two thirds of the season, but the Admirals moved up to 17th place in the AHL with a 82.1% success rate. I see this category as a wash, with Milwaukee having a superior power play, while Abbotsford features a superior penalty kill.
Playoff Experience: With a two-round run last spring Milwaukee’s veterans enter the playoffs battle tested and ready for combat. However, the Admirals remain as one of the league’s youngest teams. Meanwhile, Abbotsford failed to reach the playoffs a season ago, and have just one postseason berth on their three-year franchise resume. However, the Heat feature players like Jessiman and Wilson, who have been through the playoff grind before. Milwaukee should have a slight edge in the experience department.
Coaching: Training under one of the AHL’s best in Lane Lambert and current NHL head coach Kirk Muller, it took sometime for Admirals bench boss Ian Herbers to find his stride after being thrust into the role midseason. Meanwhile, former University of Wisconsin assistant Troy Ward took over coaching the Heat after one season as the team’s assistant and guided Abbotsford to the most productive year in the franchise’s short history. Ward is now being mentioned as a possible replacement for Brent Sutter in Calgary. With two coaches with similar backgrounds making their AHL postseason debuts, I don’t see an edge for either team here.
Intangibles: After getting swept in a home and home series with Rockford, Milwaukee gained 23 of a possible 32 points to end the season, making the playoffs on the final day of the regular season with a 6-1 win over Charlotte. Meanwhile, Abbotsford enters the playoffs as the AHL’s second hottest team (behind Norfolk, which has won 28 straight games), having won seven games in a row, while earning points in nine straight games. Tough call again, but I will give Abbotsford a slight edge.
Final Summation: In a short five-game series, there is little time to recover from a poor start, so the first two games at the Bradley Center will be critical. I see Milwaukee splitting at the BC as Abbotsford (one of the league’s best road teams) takes Sunday’s game. However, Milwaukee will respond with terrific hockey in British Columbia, taking a page out of their recent road success by winning the next two games. Therefore, I predict Milwaukee will win the series in four games.
So Roundtable . . . How would you breakdown the series against Abbotsford, and what are the keys for Milwaukee to prevail? Do you see any clear categories that the Admirals have the edge?
Does Milwaukee’s success during the season series, which ended back in February, matter?
How about Calgary not making the NHL playoffs, while Nashville looks primed for a deep postseason run. Is that a factor?