The Milwaukee Admirals ended 2016 by losing four of their last five games. It had been a grinding time for the entire group. Last night’s effort saw an injection of life with new additions making solid contributions and giving some nice stability on the defensive side of the puck. It helped see 2017 start on the right foot with a 5-2 win over the Rockford IceHogs and set a nice bar for the team to push upwards come this weekend in California.
Something that really stood out to me last night for the Admirals was the team’s shot blocking. It felt like the high quality scoring chances the IceHogs did have last night came mainly from turnovers or mistakes. Most of those went away on their own part with poor shooting. But, also, there just weren’t that many high quality chances to be had. The Admirals forced the IceHogs into deep shots all night and with that came numerous shot blocks by the group that made Marek Mazanec‘s night in net that little bit more relaxing.
What also makes Mazanec’s life that much better in net is when the team can pop home five-goals. It feels like a rare sight this season when the Admirals get an early lead, pad it, and play from ahead rather than chase from behind. The Admirals are now 15-2-1-1 this season when scoring the first goal in the game. They opened with two power-play goals, did allow a goal to the IceHogs after that, but proceeded to slam the door by the end of the second period with two goals scored forty-five seconds apart.
The goaltending was sharp. The defense played well. The offense looked good. And I think when the Admirals are at their best it functions in precisely that order. Adam Pardy returning to pair up with Alex Carrier was a very welcome sight. He was most likely one-and-done on conditioning assignment but the play of Anthony Bitetto seemed to get so sharp by the end of the game after a tough first few shifts. His work on the evening with Trevor Murphy was really good. And that all gets said while one of the Admirals best defenseman, Jimmy Oligny, also had a strong night with Jack Dougherty.
For the Admirals to get out of the funk that they were in late-December they need the simple approach that was provided last night. Those deep pucks that the IceHogs had didn’t stay around for long. There really wasn’t a single sustained attacking stretch for the IceHogs in that entire game. That comes with quick and precise puck movement up and out of the defensive zone for the Admirals. No nonsense stuff. Nothing flashy. No need to try and air-mail a home run stretch pass. Just get it out.
Mazanec faced 30 shots on goal last night. The lone goals he allowed came on a double screen just as a power-play for the IceHogs had expired – fantastic shot by Carl Dahlström. Then there was a slight defensive lapse as Chris DeSousa snuck behind the defense and was all alone to get the mid-air swat on a rebound off of a Martin Lundberg shot that hopped up on Mazanec’s chest. There wasn’t much he could do on the goals against but the 28 saves he made surrounding them were outstanding. I’ve been hearing many fan criticisms of Mazanec this season from both levels. While I understand the NHL situation for Mazanec’s play, I do, I feel some of Mazanec’s best work that I’ve seen has come since this latest trip down from the Nashville Predators. His movement in and around his net has been really good. He has played so calm and composed. He isn’t getting jumpy or overaggressive on shooters. He has played “big” in net by standing his ground and squaring up shots. While recent numbers since his reassignment on 12/14/16 might not reflect that, cheers to two games in which the Chicago Wolves erupted against the Admirals, he has been very steady. If the rest of the Admirals season features Mazanec playing at this sort of work rate with Jonas Gunnarsson, who looked great in his last two starts, I feel things are just fine moving forward as far as goaltending goes at the AHL level – with or without Juuse Saros.
Someone else who had a really nice night last night was Pontus Åberg. While Mazanec has shot back to life since reassignment by the Predators I haven’t been able to say much the same with Åberg – until last night. He was working his butt off and skating with a ton of pace. It seemed he was accounting for Harry Zolnierczyk‘s speed while he is up on recall. When Åberg plays with that high of an energy output you always feel the team has a scoring chance or two in them when he’s on the ice. It’s that caliber of play that brought him up to the Predators this season and it is that same level of hustle and skill that can get him back.
And, rather than gloss over him up top, let’s discuss Bitetto’s return to game action. Those first few shifts for him were a tad off. He said it himself that his decision making was slow. Frankly, that’s the reason why he arrived on conditioning assignment rather be thrown right back into the fire at the NHL level. The rust did seem to get more and more knocked off as he played. The mental aspects are more where he seemed to get sharper as the game grew – getting timing down. The slight good news, if you could call it that, was this last injury was a broken hand. That means being able to stay in great shape as the bones heal up. When he returns, which sounds like this could have been a one and done, he should be back to his old self for the Predators. He has had some rotten luck this season. Let’s all hope that bad luck stays in 2016 and this 2017 portion of the calendar treats our honorary Sconnie with a healthy run.
After last night’s game I chatted with Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. I also did catch up with Bitetto, Mazanec, and Åberg. These were their comments following Tuesday night’s win at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
Comments on the comments? Would you be as comfortable as me with a Mazanec-Gunnarsson goaltending tandem from here on out? How do you feel the Milwaukee Admirals will handle these Pacific Division teams out in California given how little they see each other?
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