Monday’s outing was described as “awful” and “the worst we’ve played all year” by Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. The group had an intense practice Tuesday and looked for the right response against an Iowa Wild team that can and has had the Admirals numbers at times in recent years. I feel the response by the team was a strong one. And, not to mention, the real standout for the Admirals has been the sore spot lately – the defense.
The Admirals 3-0 shutout came in large part to a group effort in really establishing their defensive half of the ice as a place the Wild were going to have to scratch and claw for and then fight harder to keep it. For a welcome change, the defense was really doing a good job getting pucks up and out of their zone and not creating traps for themselves with turnovers or overaggressive penalties. The pucks that would get deep didn’t stay deep for long. And, while the twenty-seven save shutout was great, there just weren’t a high volume of quality scoring chances against Jonas Gunnarsson. The group helped him to settle into the pace of the game and once the Swede was needed in a pinch he was up to task.
What was also a great boost for the team was seeing rewards come for the likes of Gunnarsson and Justin Kirkland last night.
Gunnarsson’s story this season is a fairly obvious one. He’s just not getting game action and a lot of that has to do with the flip-flopping nature of the Nashville Predators indecision of who they want to back-up Pekka Rinne. Between Juuse Saros and Marek Mazanec I feel both have done a good job wherever they get shipped around to. But, all the while, Gunnarsson has been on the outside looking in. The team knows it. He knows it. That said, when the name gets put up on the board as “starting in net” he has to deliver. He’s shown great signs of battling for pucks in net previously but he was so calm and confident last night. The team rallied behind that and there is an infectious attitude when the goaltender exudes confidence and stability such as he did. If the Predators could clamp down and say Saros is up top and Mazanec is staying down rather than have both always looking over their shoulder and living out of suitcases it could help everyone even more to settle in and let it roll. Mazanec has looked great since coming down from Nashville. Gunnarsson gets rotated in finally and he provides a shutout.
Kirkland’s story this season has been that of, “Hey, wait a minute. Weren’t you a big time scorer in juniors? What’s happening?” To be fair, scoring isn’t always everything and there have been a lot of times when Kirkland seemed ever so close to getting that first pro goal. It took a trip down to the ECHL, while the forward depth was getting deep again, for him to record that first pro goal as a member of the Cincinnati Cyclones. It seems whenever I watch practice Kirkland is impressive to watch across all drills the team throws him into. Sometimes it just takes getting that first one to get a weight off. Last night, with his dad celebrating his birthday in attendance as well as his old coach – who was wearing a #23 Kirkland Kelowna Rockets jersey, he got that first AHL and Admirals goal. You could see not just relief on Kirkland as that shot went through but also jubilation from the rest of the team for him. Everyone there wants to see each other succeed – even more so the ones that put the hard work in. That came good for Kirkland and then the team rallied behind Gunnarsson to see him -and the team- get the shutout.
Someone else who deserves a good mention would be Rick Pinkston. “Who is that,” you ask. Well, let me tell you. I flat out didn’t know either until close to puck drop. I was at practice on Tuesday and he wasn’t there. He was actually relaxing in Michigan at that time. He signed a PTO Contract out of the ECHL, showed up to a team where he only kind of knew Trevor Smith, heard good things about the organization from former Dartmouth teammate Eric Robinson, and spilled on the ice for a game.
The first goal last night came directly from a quick play on Pinkston’s part followed by keeping his shot low to the ice so he could generate a rebound while the Admirals had the numbers during a four-on-two rush. Mike Liambas was there to get the loose puck off Alex Stalock‘s pads. And Pinkston had himself a primary assist seven minutes into his Admirals debut. He played a very level-headed and simple defensive game that I felt made lots of sense in righting the ship defensively last night. There weren’t glaring mistakes that he made at all, either. That was an under the radar really nice night given the circumstances in which he was thrown right into the fire.
Another area that’s worth giving some praise to would be the Admirals special teams last night. The penalty kill this season has been fantastic all-around – if only over-worked lately. The taxing style that the Admirals have been toying with, taking lots of penalties, means seeing a lot of that PK group but they weren’t over-exerted last night. The Admirals killed all four penalties and did a quality job in forced very deep perimeter shots that weren’t going to cause much trouble. The best chance the Wild probably had last night came on a power-play when Christoph Bertschy finally rushed the net to attempt a jam play but Gunnarsson stayed low and forced a whistle. As for the Admirals power-play – it’s been a mixed bag this season mostly highlighted by over-passing. Some of that staple did creep in on their last two chances in the game but, first time of asking, they got one when they needed one. Frédérick Gaudreau made a really incredible play working on the backhand and out-waiting Stalock to force the net open as he glided across from slot to left. For the Admirals to get a second goal a minute out of the second period only allowed the group to calm down that much more and be the guys playing with a lead rather than in a one-goal scrap or chasing from behind. It feels like it hasn’t happened too often this season. But the result kind of says enough for what the Admirals can be if they play smart defensively and transition forward for timely offense then maintaining a lead. It just helped to shut the door.
After last night’s game came to an end I did get to catch up with plenty of the names mentioned above. I spoke Evason, Gaudreau, Kirkland, Pinkston, and Gunnarsson to hear what they made of the night. These were last night’s post-game interviews.
For the record, I did everything in my power to not burst out laughing after Evason called Pinkston by the name Pinky. I may have pulled a jaw muscle grinding my teeth through that one.
A story worth keeping an eye on come Friday night’s road game against the Chicago Wolves will be the status of Cody Bass. There didn’t look to be any ill intent by anyone when he got injured last night but he clashed legs and immediately grabbed towards the back of his right hamstring area. He needed help getting off to the locker room and never returned after that incident in the second period. And, while not official yet, Anthony Richard was already with the Admirals last night. It could be that Max Görtz goes right back in and Richard can serve as a possible flex-option should the Admirals feel the need for speed in Richard’s game.
Comments on the comments? Do you feel that the addition of Pinkston is the Admirals way of trying to find a certain defenseman that can stick to the lineup (eg. Kessel, Diaby)? Would you feel comfortable if the rest of the season the Admirals featured a goaltending tandem of Mazanec and Gunnarsson?
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