Well, it’s that time of year again.
Milwaukee fans have grown pretty accustomed to playoff hockey with the Admirals making their 11th straight appearance, but this season’s postseason berth almost wasn’t.
It took a huge push down the stretch, but the Ads got it done and were rewarded with the pleasure of facing the top seed in the West.
Texas has more than earned that distinction, but while eight-seeds generally don’t get much respect versus one-seeds, (hell, even that’s shifting in the world of hockey with an eight-seed taking home the Stanley Cup last season) this particular matchup doesn’t quite feel like your usual first-round top vs. bottom showdown.
There’s the overall eight-point differential between the teams in the standings. That’s basically four games that separate the top and bottom of the conference playoff picture.
Also the head-to-head matchups this season (yes, it’s a small, two-game sample size) were both won by Texas, but neither was a particularly dominating performance by the Stars.
A 3-1 road loss way back on October 24 was marred by a horrible start for the Ads and seven Milwaukee two-minute minors. Milwaukee didn’t register a shot on net in the first 15 minutes and spending so much time on the kill kept the Ads from getting into a rhythm.
The second game was played much closer with the Ads dropping a 2-1 decision in OT at the Bradley Center on December 6. The Ads took a 1-0 lead on an early second-period goal by Austin Watson, but Cody Eakin scored on a late power play chance with 6:25 left in the game to send it to the extra period. Tomas Vincour scored the game-winner.
Mark Van Guilder spoke to the fact that with the current makeup of both sides in mind, it’s best to throw out the results of both contests heading into this weekend.
“I think both teams have gotten a lot better since the last time we met,” Van Guilder said.
Both losses came with Jeremy Smith in net, meaning Magnus Hellberg will get his first crack at Texas this season. His presence alone speaks to the fact that this Admirals team is quite different from the one that faced the Stars earlier in the season.
“I think it’s been good for me to have a lot of games in a row going into the playoffs,” Hellberg said. “I didn’t play much in the beginning so I had to work a lot in the gym to get my conditioning up and I feel that I have use for it now for sure.”
“We worry about what we do, but we do some scouting as well to see what they’re up to. I know the Swedish goalie (Christopher Nilstorp) a little bit. I played against him last year so if we both play it will be a fun little Swedish goalie battle for sure.”
The arrival of Filip Forsberg along with the traveling trio of Daniel Bang, Austin Watson and Kevin Henderson adds plenty of intrigue to the game one matchup, though the quartet may head back up to Nashville on Saturday.
That situation is nothing new for coach Dean Evason, however, as the Ads experienced plenty of emergency recalls and a fluctuating lineup during their playoff push.
“Whoever’s here when the puck’s dropped, they play,” Evason said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, as long as they know what they’re doing, they all play hard. We’ve been able to get our mindset in the right spot and go out and play the game on the ice. We’ve been playing playoff hockey now for a couple of months, so our group should know exactly how to play in tight situations.”
“We’re not 100 percent on their lineup and they’re not 100 percent on ours. We’re not a huge matchup team, but we like to get a few matchups on our back end against their high end players.”
Evason attributed a lot of credit to the personal drive of each of his players during the team’s late surge. He claimed he didn’t have to push them as hard as he’d expected down the stretch.
“There’s an inner coaching and teaching within the group that the guys do, not only away from games, but in games during timeouts. They’re constantly talking to each other about doing the right things, putting pucks in the right areas and what have you. I think our group’s pretty strong mentally, so I think we’re fresh physically and mentally going in.”
Throughout the season, Van Guilder has established himself at the forefront of that inner coaching movement.
“I think it’s too hard for the coaches to teach and lead all by themselves,” Van Guilder said. “It takes a handful of guys stepping up in the locker room. I think my role is just to lead by example and be a professional, teaching the younger guys how to prepare and play hard every night. I also try to set the example of staying calm in tight situations.”
The last time the Stars and Ads met in the playoffs back in 2011, Van Guilder scored the series-clinching double overtime goal to advance Milwaukee to the Division Finals.
“That was an unbelievable series,” Van Guilder said. “That’s a team that I obviously have a lot of respect for. We play a very similar game to theirs and hopefully it’ll be another fun series.”
“I think with the way we’ve played the last couple of weeks, we’ve got good momentum going in. We’re definitely confident going in, but we know they’re the number one seed for a reason. I hope that it’s closer than a one vs. eight series implies, but I think you’re going to see some really good hockey by both teams.”
What’s your official series prediction? Who wins in how many?
What kind of impact do you think Filip Forsberg will bring in his Admirals debut? How do you see the team rebounding from likely losing him along with possibly Bang, Watson and Henderson for the next game?