The Milwaukee Admirals did not play their best game of the season last night. Not at all. They were caught up in a defensively grinding contest where sticks clogged up passing and shooting lanes and never really seemed to have much of a secure grip on the game.
It’s precisely that reason why I believe the Admirals 4-3 win in overtime over the Central Division leading Rockford IceHogs felt so sweet. The Admirals form wasn’t great but it was still able to get them across the finish line ahead of a team that has been performing so well such as the IceHogs. In a game that felt so much like a playoff style game from a defensive chess match perspective – the Admirals overcame a rough second period wave to come up with checkmate.
The goal that forced overtime for the Admirals could be considered puck. It could. But, I say otherwise. The IceHogs opted for much of the third period to sit back and defend. They started playing trap through the neutral zone and were holding on to their 3-2 lead with a death grip. They allowed the Admirals to bring wave upon wave of attack into their trap and defensive zone minefield. The Admirals kept pushing and finally forced a loose puck out in front of Michael Leighton that could be jammed home. From there? The open ice of three-on-three overtime eliminates the strength of the IceHogs which is their great defensive structure at five-on-five. The IceHogs have the strength. The Admirals have the speed. Speed kills in three-on-three overtime – as does intelligence.
Marko Dano was throwing a weak pass from the left point that Cody Hodgson was able to easily bat down. Dano’s mistake and Hodgson’s smart stick-work allowed for an odd man situation to develop in neutral ice. Kevin Fiala had Hodgson’s read on Dano’s pass and was off to the races with the interception by Hodgson which allowed him to beat Vinnie Hinostroza to the punch. Dano squares to the man who picked him up, Hodgson, but fails to assess -as a forward playing last man back on defense- that Fiala has cheated behind him for the breakaway. Hodgson’s dish is perfect. Fiala is in all alone. Waits for Leighton to sprawl out and give him an open net to elevate into – and he just gets the puck over the right pad to bury the IceHogs on what was their third mistake with the puck that directly lead to an Admirals goal.
The overtime win for the Admirals against the IceHogs didn’t change the divisional standings. The IceHogs remain in first place with a 0.670 points percentage from 47 games played. The Admirals are hot on their heels with a 0.663 points percentage from 46 games played. What is starting to look fantastic though is the head-to-head numbers this season. The Admirals are now 6-2-1-0 against the IceHogs this season. The Admirals have claimed 68.4% of the points available in the match up while limiting the IceHogs to 38.9% of the available points. The IceHogs have lost to the Admirals four times after regulation – last night was the first time this season where it was the Admirals that needed to get scrappy and score an equalizer to force overtime. The IceHogs have done well to claim some points from the nasty clutch of defeat but the majority of points in a head-to-head of the top two teams in the Central Division is going the Admirals way. As it stands, the IceHogs could find themselves in a position down the stretch where they’ll be needing outside help if put in a position where they’re chasing the Admirals. The season series only has three more games remaining. That includes two games in Rockford. If last night felt like it was a playoff teaser then we’re in for a treat come then because those are big points that could be the difference between winning this year’s Central Division or not.
If you thought that I would go through Chatterbox without breaking down Frédérick Gaudreau‘s first career pro hat trick – you’d be wrong. He needs and deserves his own segment of the Chatterbox. So, let’s plunge into it.
Gaudreau’s season through December was looking astonishing. It was the type of feel good story that makes me love covering life at the AHL level as much as I do. An undrafted free agent signing who flipped between the AHL and ECHL in his debut season that earned a second career AHL contract which would get bumped up by the Nashville Predators brass into an NHL two-year entry level contract. Heck, two days after that announcement came another one – he was going to represent the Admirals as an AHL All-Star in Syracuse. Then Colton Sissons was re-assigned by the Predators to the Admirals and, for whatever reason, the Gaudreau machine kind of hit a wall.
From the moment to Sissons return to the Admirals to the game prior to last night – Gaudreau had scored 7 points (0 goals, 7 assists) in 15 games. He went from playing Sissons role as a top line center to Sissons wing-man. Sissons in that same span? Also not hot. Sissons had gathered 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) in 15 games. In that 15 game span the two were held pointless on the same night seven-times including a spell of six-straight games which came two games after Sissons return from Nashville. What happened to Gaudreau’s December mojo when he scored 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 14 games?
I’ve had the feeling that it wasn’t so much the return of Sissons to the Admirals that impacted Gaudreau’s performance as much as it was his switch from center to the left wing. Kind of ironic in a way when last season saw the exact same scenario unfold for Austin Watson with such brilliant results. There is more freedom on the wing to be creative offensively and a little lighter defensive load when operating around the outside of the ice. What was it about the move to the wing that caused Gaudreau to sputter while Watson thrived? … That’s a legitimate question that I honestly don’t have a clever answer to. I believe the simplest guess for an answer would be that it all comes down to what’s going on between the ears and, with a player as defensively stout as Gaudreau can be, allowing yourself the ability to attack more and worry less about the heightened responsibilities that come with playing center. I would be surprised if at some point during the end of that 15 game span that someone didn’t out and tell Gaudreau, “You don’t have to worry about that work load down the middle of the ice – Sissons is already doing it. Handle your own assignment and be the playmaker that you already are when marching North.”
It just so happened that last night’s game for Gaudreau, a center playing on the wing, also happened to be the return of Max Reinhart after nearly two full weeks of hockey. So, what did the Admirals, with a now 100% fully fit squad, decide to do with him, Hodgson, and Vladislav Kamenev all coming back into the lineup after not having any of those players a weekend ago? Drop three centers all on the exact same line: Reinhart-Sissons-Gaudreau.
What were the results for all three of those lads? Reinhart, no points but a +3 rating in a 4-3 game… Sissons, one assist and a +3 rating in a 4-3 game… Gaudreau, scored a hat trick in regulation to force overtime and was a +3 in a 4-3 game. That line alone combined for 28% of the Admirals shots on goal last night. They were active. And, when I say active, I mean across the board. The first two goals scored of Gaudreau’s hat trick are prime examples of defense-to-offense: Gaudreau keeps an active stick, Nolan Valleau thinks he has a breakout pass, Gaudreau takes away the passing lane, keeps the puck in front of him to complete the intercept, squares to the net, scores a goal… Cameron Schilling, and the rest of his IceHogs forward group, thinks he’s going to carry the puck out of the defensive zone and make a play through neutral ice. WRONG. Sissons turns on those CCM Jetspeeds of his, back-checks Schilling, loops with Gaudreau.. who was watching the back-check by Sissons unfold from the slot to the blueline.. and the two-on-one gets buried with a nasty wrister that all came from heads up defensive awareness from both forwards.
So, what’s it all boil down to then? Gaudreau went on a stretch of 15 games without scoring a goal and then proceeds to score a hat trick. Is he streaky or just going through a slight lull coming off of what was for -everyone- on the Admirals a highly taxing month of December? My guess is just that. It was a lull in the scoring department. Just because the points and goals weren’t stacking up didn’t mean his overall play was bad during that stretch. It’s the balance between defending and attacking that Gaudreau seems to teeter between and, for at least last night, he did both brilliantly. That’s a great sign for the busy time ahead for the team.
On an ending fun note for Gaudreau… and that goal that forced overtime… and provided him with his first hat trick since 3/28/14 during the 2014 President’s Cup playoffs as a member of the Drummondville Voltigeurs when he scored 5 goals against the Victoriaville Tigres… I attended Admirals practice Thursday morning at the MSOE Kern Center. After formal practice ended a group of players stationed around Juuse Saros in net and proceeded to perform a reaction drill (photo). One shooter, placed in the slot, would fire a puck on target and the group would try to smack any sort of rebound off of Saros directly in. Look at Gaudreau’s hat trick goal one more time. Practice makes perfect. And, in this instance, practice made two points against the IceHogs.
After the game, I had the chance to interview Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason with fellow media scrum-mates Dave Boehler and Mario Tirabassi. I then proceeded to get post-game comments from Gaudreau, Sissons, and Fiala. Here is what they all had to say following the comeback win over the IceHogs last night.
Comments on the comments? Should the Nashville Predators not sell the farm to buy the present at the trade deadline where do you see the Milwaukee Admirals team going this season as far as the playoffs are concerned? Which team within the Central Division scares you more: Rockford or Grand Rapids?