If last night’s 4-1 win from the Milwaukee Admirals over the Grand Rapids Griffins wasn’t enough of a feel good “huzzah” type moment as you left the BMO Harris Bradley Center last night I’m going to try and guide you to what I felt was even bigger than the result itself. Because it’s not so much the win itself as much as it was the manner in which the Admirals earned the win that left me feeling giddy.
One of the real strong character traits that the 2015-16 Admirals team has displayed throughout this season has been the exact same problem that overwhelmed them in 2014-15. During momentum shifts in games, or when the pressure builds up and an opponent starts getting more of the kind bounces going there way, this Admirals team stays within itself and sticks together. It hasn’t mattered who was in the lineup, who was called up, who was injured, or who was in net – the team shows up and competes hard. Last night’s game had a poor start. The Griffins had the better jump to their game and three power-play chances in the first period alone – including an extended five-on-three power-play. The Admirals battled through the first two penalty kills. The second penalty kill, in particular, was an igniter for the team to get the wave of pressure from the Griffins to stop dead. Frédérick Gaudreau and Félix Girard were at the end of their shifts when Gaudreau got a clearance and Girard raced down, won the puck, powered towards the front of the net, and earned a penalty against the Griffins to end the power-play. The abbreviated power-play that followed was nothing special but the full-length chance that came afterwards was.
This is where the next big momentum shift came into the mix. Adam Payerl was called for a slashing minor. On the penalty kill Jimmy Oligny clocked Mitch Callahan along the boards in the low right wing. It was a big hit. It seemed harmless enough and clean. But the call was made immediately. Oligny was handed a boarding minor. The Griffins were down 1-0 but had an instant chance to equalize or even take the lead thanks to 1:09 worth of five-on-three power-play. Spoiler: that didn’t happen. The Admirals initial five-on-three penalty kill group was Cody Bass, Vladislav Kamenev, and Taylor Aronson. The two forwards were cruising to control the angles. Aronson was incredible to watch the amount of movement, laying down to negate passes across the crease to the back post, and racing back to his feet so he could set up shop on the opposite post to do it all over again. The first period ended with the Admirals having an attacking zone face-off on that penalty kill and they would finish the rest of Payerl and Oligny’s penalties at the start of the second period. The Admirals penalty kill went a perfect five-for-five last night. After having the poor first period where they made frequent trips to the box – there were no Griffins power-plays in the second period. The Griffins next power-play wouldn’t come until they were down 4-1 6:59 into the third period.
That brings us to the next huge element to last night’s game which was the third period. The Admirals had a 2-0 lead reduced to a goal after Andy Miele‘s rocket wrister stuck a puck into the netting. As far as the scoring momentum goes. As far as the season history goes. The Griffins should have been the ones feeling confident that they could enter the third period, level the score at 2-2, and take the game to the Admirals as they have throughout this season. The Admirals opted to blitz the Griffins with a goal inside of thirty-seconds of the third period from Stefan Elliott. That level of deflation from the Griffins, combined with a skilled piece of pressure defense by Pontus Åberg to generate an awful turnover from Martin Frk to give Max Reinhart a breakaway and his team leading twentieth goal of the season only 1:12 of ice time following Elliott’s goal, was curtains.
This is the last and possibly most impressive part to last night’s game: the finish. The Admirals had those opening two-goals out of the gate for the third period, sure, but they shut the door on the Griffins. It’s around this point when the Admirals defense, and Juuse Saros in net, came to the forefront. The Grffins outshot the Admirals 10-9 in the final frame, and 29-28 in the contest, but the Admirals kept them quiet and only allowed one slick piece of speed and skill to get the better of them. Saros made twenty-eight saves, looked very composed once again, didn’t allow poor rebounds, made smart decisions to freeze the puck and get a defensive zone face-off for Girard or Bass to deal with, and made one of the more highly important games of the Admirals season to date look like it was easier than I’m sure it really was. That’s a credit to him and the defense playing in front of him. I refer you to all take a good look at that photo of Saros even more closely. That was the Admirals doing to the Griffins as the Griffins usually did to the Admirals. Clear out the net, force low quality scoring chances from deep in the zone, and allow the goaltender to make the save.
The Admirals are playing playoff hockey right now. Simple as that. They’ve not been doing anything flashy or put themselves into a track meet type of contest. They’ve been sound defensively which has allowed for better chances at the other end of the rink and the offense is finding ways to generate goals from many different contributors. This is what I was seeing out of the Admirals in that game last night which left me feeling all sorts of giddy on the way out of the building. It was played like a playoff game. The Griffins are as solid of a team as you’ll find in the AHL’s Western Conference. The Admirals came out in the third period and took it to them offensively and defensively. I’d consider that your playoff test run and a successful one at that. I cannot wait for playoff hockey to begin.
After the game I had the chance to speak with Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason as well as Aronson and Åberg. Here is what they had to say following last night’s win over the Griffins.
Comments on the comments? It hasn’t been clinched yet, but, let’s think 2016 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs for a moment. Who do you feel are the main threats coming out of the Western Conference that could give the Milwaukee Admirals troubles in the playoffs? Would there be a certain team that you wouldn’t want to face in the opening round or would there be one you think would be better to face right away?
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