On paper, or really just the box score, the Milwaukee Admirals 2-0 shutout of the Iowa Wild sounds pretty good. Nothing outrageous in the scoring department but a controlling game of shutout hockey where the lesser team was put in its respective hole.
That of course wasn’t exactly how it played out. Not even close. That game was ugly – very ugly. Neither the Admirals or Wild could really string passes or solid attacks throughout the game. Both sides struggled to find any sort of a foothold from which to build their offense up and chip away with shots to the net. It was really a game of misguided passes or deflected passes. It was an all-around slop fest.
What is important to note though is one very simple fact. The Admirals didn’t commit a major mistake in the contest. For as rough as so many passes were throughout the night there weren’t botched transitions out of the Admirals defensive zone to allow for the Wild to grind out and create multiple chances. The team such together and forced pucks out of their zone. If it meant the cost of icing the puck? So be it. The Admirals appeared to win the better majority of their defensive zone face-offs on the night and, time-and-time again, get out of the jams that those should create. It allowed for a deep breath to be taken and a chance to re-establish their own base of attack. That clearly was a rough area for the Admirals on the night but all that was needed was a touch of quality that their forwards group possess to get the job done. Kevin Fiala provided it. And that was enough.
I still look at games that the Admirals have played this season against the bottom feeders of the Central Division and scratch my head a bit. What is it about the Admirals and lower tier opposition? The Admirals have gone 5-4-1-0 against the bottom two teams of their division. Of those five-wins two were one-goal contests that ended with overtime or a shootout. Last night could have just as easily ended at a 1-0 final. The Wild. The Manitoba Moose. They appear to bring out the worst of the Admirals and I’m not sure why that is.
Regardless of how tough teams like the Wild or Moose seem to match up – it is worth looking closer at the standings right now. The Admirals and Texas Stars both became the first teams in the Western Conference to reach the 30 wins mark on the season last night. The major difference to the two teams is it took the Stars seven extra games to accomplish it. The Admirals are 30-14-3-0 (63 points). They have won seven or their last nine games. This is all happening while teams like the Charlotte Checkers and Grand Rapids Griffins are suffering major setbacks in recent weeks. Through this entire season the Admirals consistency has been outstanding and it’s important to not overlook that. This Admirals roster featured a 100% healthy lineup this weekend for the first time since December 1st when there were so many roster moves within the system that Vinny Saponari was needed on PTO basis just to have a full forward group. To have secured the wins that the Admirals have throughout so much mayhem has been incredible when you remember back to the destruction levels that all began on this exact date last season when Brendan Leipsic was traded away and Miikka Salomäki was declared done for the rest of the season due to a second shoulder injury that required surgery. Times have changed for the better.
Sure, last night’s game was a bit of a sleeper. Sure, it was sloppy. But, whenever he was needed for a save or a stoppage of play, Marek Mazanec was there for the Admirals. He stopped everything that Iowa threw at him and picked up yet another shutout this season. Mazanec now has 4 shutouts in 26 games this season. He had 4 shutouts from 48 games all last season and none as a rookie with the Admirals in 2013-14 when he appeared in 31 games. The evolution of Mazanec this season has been something of an eye-opener.
In year one, Mazanec actually spent a solid chunk of time helping out the Nashville Predators. He appeared in 25 games, had a 2.80 goals against average (GAA), 0.902 save percentage (SV%), and a pair of shutouts. His numbers, GAA and SV%, were both better with Milwaukee but he was never someone I would feel comfortable with in net. He allowed two or more goals per game for 24 straight games and didn’t really settle down in net until the final month of the season and the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs.
The same sense of here-there-everywhere could be felt last season, too. Mazanec would go through stretches that would have you so excited, winning five-straight games, but follow it up by losing nine of his next eleven games. He’d win seven-straight games but follow it up with four-straight losses. He ended his season winning one of his last eleven starts. The numbers fluctuated so much but the one that stood out the most was seeing a 0.917 SV% as a rookie fall off to a sophomore 0.900 SV%.
Plenty of changes were made last off-season but I think one of the biggest ones came in the form of Juuse Saros‘ arrival to North America. Mazanec was suddenly placed in a role his old battery-mate Magnus Hellberg found himself in back when Mazanec arrived in 2013-14. The starting job isn’t a lock. People are talking about Goalie 1-A and 1-B but, mainly, people are riding the hype-train that is Saros – the supposed heir to Pekka Rinne‘s Nashville/Suomi Predators goaltending position.
The pressure of in-house competition was higher than ever before on Mazanec this season. The two years previous he was the one in the position of dethroning an elder. This season he is the elder with an expiring contract looking to (1) succeed in net when given the opportunity (2) beat out his teammate Saros to earn more playing time (3) earn a new contract with the Predators and possibly give them a more bang for your buck alternative to Carter Hutton. It is mid-February and Mazanec has proceeded to Phase 2. Phase 3 will be worked out when the season ends and made all the more interesting should both Mazanec and Hutton continue performing as well as they have been. Ironically, the better Hutton plays while Mazanec also plays well actually makes the case for Mazanec that much stronger when you think about Nashville wanting to limit the dollar amount attached to the back-up goaltending job.
This season Mazanec has made 26 appearances (all starts), has a record of 15-8-3-0 in net, a 2.32 GAA, 0.919 SV%, and 4 shutouts. With only three more wins he will have matched last season’s overall wins total of 18. He has been nothing short of brilliant.
After last night’s game I had the chance to speak with Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. I also spoke with Fiala and Mazanec. Those interviews took place with Dave Boehler and Colin Fitts on-hand. For one last interview I tackled the prospect of asking Max Reinhart about why he left the team for two weeks due to personal reasons as well as his general thoughts on the game and playing on the “Super Centers Line” with Colton Sissons and Frédérick Gaudreau. This is what everyone had to say following the conclusion of last night’s shutout win over Iowa.
Comments on the comments? With today marking the one-year anniversary of the Leipsic trade are you at all concerned that this Admirals team might see some names get dealt before the NHL Trade Deadline this season?