Last night’s performance by the Milwaukee Admirals was one of the strongest the team has had all season. For awhile now the talk has been to play a complete sixty-minutes of hockey and these past three-games have really shown just that level of commitment from the entire group. It was defensive minded for the two-games in Cleveland. Yet, last night the Admirals really took a leap forward from what they had accomplished against the Cleveland Monsters and the result was a completely smothering effort to beat the Grand Rapids Griffins 3-1.
I suppose we can get past the elephant in the room right away. The Admirals and Juuse Saros really deserved a shutout last night. It would have solidified what was such a masterful team performance against a great team in the Griffins. Unfortunately it just seemed as though tempers were rising a touch at the end and it got the better of the Admirals by way of penalty trouble. You’re asking for trouble when you give the Griffins numerous power-play chances. You’re really asking for trouble when you give them a full two-minutes to play with a two-man advantage. It burned the Admirals. It slightly stings knowing that’s the way the shutout bid ended. But it doesn’t negate the result and the collective effort to make the shutout such a possibility.
Saros made stops when he needed to. His best save of the night came from what I felt was the Griffins lone solid scoring opportunity at full-strength. Shortly after Trevor Smith scored in the first period the Griffins worked a piece of space open for themselves with Kyle Criscuolo sneaking behind the Admirals defense. Criscuolo was wide open from the low right wing, unleashed a wrister from the bottom of the right wing face-off circle, and his shot went against the grain while Saros held tight to the near post. The shot stayed low and Saros was just able to get the right-toe to it. Beyond that? I can’t say that anything else was all that stressful for the Admirals defensively or for Saros in net. …aside from that two full minutes of five-on-three penalty kill but we went over that.
Saros though just continues to be astonishingly consistent in net. In his AHL career during the regular season he has now made 48 career starts with the Admirals, holds a record in net of 38-9-0-0, 2.10 goals against average, 0.926 save percentage, and five shutouts. That’s a winning percentage of 0.792 when he starts in net. He current leads the AHL this season in wins (9) and is second in goals against average (1.59) and save percentage (0.945) to Casey DeSmith (1.40 GAA, 0.949 SV%) who has played just five games this season. Saros arrived to Milwaukee on a hype train and it is only gathering steam that should pack a punch once it is needed in Nashville. He is absolutely the real deal.
Offensively the Admirals really looked to establish themselves against a defense that in the past has made them sputter in place. There were stretches in that game where the Griffins didn’t even look like they belonged on the same ice as the Admirals. Bizarrely, it felt oh-so often like how most Admirals and Griffins games have felt in recent years but with the roles reversing. The Admirals were the ones clogging lanes, pressuring pucks, winning battles, and scrapping at the net. The Griffins were the ones pressured into making poor passing decisions, turning pucks over, seeing shots get blocked by bodies or sticks, and being unable to find a real flow to the game. It was so impressive to see. And it might finally have been a showcase of just how this year’s Admirals look playing at their maximum potential.
There are numerous individual mentions that could be made out of that game. Though I feel that top line deserves it the most. Smith obviously scored the two goals in the game but that entire line set the tempo from the opening puck drop. The Admirals captain with Kevin Fiala and Matt White around him played a quick, hard, and skillful game. It was a table setting line. I got the feeling every shift that followed was trying to match the compete level.
Fiala has looked better with each passing game with the Admirals during this recent AHL stint. If the goal is to find a consistent high-energy effort from a shift to shift basis from him then he is getting there. He isn’t giving Viktor Arvidsson levels of “whoa, look at that guy” or even Pontus Åberg levels of wanting to double shift him because of how good he’s looking. But, that’s why he is in Milwaukee and why there is a Milwaukee relative to Nashville. He’s learning. He’s improving. And he had a solid effort last night.
Another notable player from last night’s game was defenseman Anthony Bitetto. It wasn’t even until I spoke with him after the game that I took into account how, for a conditioning assignment, he was thrown right into the fire: Cleveland Monsters (last year’s Calder Cup Champions) and Grand Rapids Griffins (always -always- tough). He was paired as a lefty-lefty tandem with Trevor Murphy and really looked to be much more comfortable than his first game back. Bitetto skated really well. He made smart decisions with the puck. And was really locked in when working in the defensive zone: positioning, battling the wall, stick work, blocking shots, and operating around Saros in net.
Bitetto’s conditioning assignment with the Admirals will come to an end following last night’s performance. He logged two games. He played as a seventh defenseman for the Admirals in the comeback and looked good. The Admirals then sat Jack Dougherty for the night to get Bitetto a more lengthy run on the ice and he responded well with a much stronger game. The Ads won both contests he participated in and both were highly defensively sound and structured performances by the team. Bitetto should be back in Nashville come Friday night when the team hosts the Winnipeg Jets.
Right now the Admirals hold a record of 11-2-1-1 (24 points, 0.800 points percentage). With the win over the second placed team in their division last night they now have a 6 point gap in the Central Division. In terms of sheer points, 24 points, they have the most in the Western Conference by 6 points over the Grand Rapids Griffins and Tucson Roadrunners. The Admirals are second to only the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (25 points) in the entire league as far as points earned. The WBS Penguins have played two-more games than the Admirals have at this point though. And, back to that lovely points percentage figure that the Pacific Division brought in last season, the Ads are second to only the Roadrunners in points percentage in the entire league and trail them by (0.018).
The Admirals are on a nine-game point streak. They are just starting to play some of their absolute best hockey as this run is extending. In short, Happy Thanksgiving Admirals fans.
After last night’s game I caught up with Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. I also spoke with Bitetto, Saros, and Fiala. This is what they had to say following the Admirals victory over the Griffins on Wednesday night at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
On a last note. Both Cody Bass and Matt Carle were placed on waivers by the Nashville Predators yesterday. Keep an eye out for news today to see if they (1) clear waivers (2) get reassigned to the Milwaukee Admirals (3) accept their assignment to the AHL.
Comments on the comments? Do you feel that the upcoming amount of road games will throw this current run of form for the Milwaukee Admirals for a loop?
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