Round 1: The Battle for Redemption

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

If I really had to pick who the Milwaukee Admirals were to face in the opening round of the 2017 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs – it would be the Grand Rapids Griffins. There are so many storylines that can make this five-game series special and you can start exactly a season ago when these two opened up the playoffs against each other on the back of the Admirals winning the Central Division title. That Admirals team was great. Yet, this year’s Admirals team matches up even better against this year’s Griffins and the chance for redemption is available.

~Redemption~

When the Admirals entered last year’s opening round series with the Griffins they entered having gone 3-5-0-0 against them during the 2015-16 regular season. All of their wins came on home ice and -at the time- they hadn’t won on the road in Grand Rapids since 1/31/15. This season, the Admirals are 5-6-1-0 against the Griffins and the majority of their wins have come at the Van Andel Arena. The Admirals won three of six games in Grand Rapids this season.

There are a few standout moments from when these two locked horns last year. They all end up being moments that ended with officials pausing the action only to give the Griffins a boost.

When the Admirals hosted Game 2 last season they were wrongly negated a goal for goaltender interference at a point in the game when they were starting to generate a solid push. The delay stunted that push and disallowed a perfectly good goal for Max Görtz. The Admirals would later get a goal from Vladislav Kamenev but lose on that disallowed goal call.

Game 3 of last year’s playoff series match up almost doesn’t need an introduction. That was the “Replacement Net” game in which a 1-0 Admirals first period lead suddenly vanished as not one but two shots by the Griffins in the second period were judged to have gone through the net for goals. The delay that came from both reviews only could have ever ended in stunting momentum that the Admirals generated and then giving it back to the Griffins to recover and surge – which they did en route to a series sweep.

Needless to say, I hope the officials do a thorough check on both nets for all games against the Griffins at the Van Andel Arena this time around.

~The Road Ahead~

As the Admirals will need to be road warriors in the playoffs everyone should rest in knowing that the Admirals ended the season as the league’s third best road team with a record of 23-11-1-3 (50 points, 0.658 points percentage). That will of course best tested out the gate against the Griffins who tied for eighth best in the league this season with a home record of 25-11-0-2 (52 points, 0.684 points percentage).

Another point of interest for the home-road splits between these two teams will be on special teams. The Admirals had the third best road penalty kill in the AHL this season killing  84.7%. The Griffins home power-play was the second best in the AHL at 26.2% which was marginally less than the best by the San Jose Barracuda (26.5%). The Admirals road power-play stands at 17.2% while the Griffins home penalty kill is 83.9%.

When you flip the two, the Admirals finished the regular season right behind the Griffins with the third best home power-play at 24.6%. The Admirals home penalty kill stood at 82.1%. The Griffins road penalty kill was 82.1% and their road power-play was the best in the entire league at 22.5%.

So, in short, penalties conceded in this series could make or break a game – especially at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. We saw a taste of that in the regular season finale when the Griffins won 5-1 with their power-play going 2/5 and penalty kill working a perfect 7/7. The chances with the man-advantage need to be capitalized upon for the Admirals and they will need to play mistake free hockey in order to lessen trips to the penalty box.

~Less Talk, More Play~

It makes sense for divisional opponents to have some bad blood between them but the Admirals and Griffins rivalry has mainly been contested out of supremacy rather than sheer nastiness on the ice. Earlier in the season Joe Hicketts did deliver a low-bridge check against Harry Zolnierczyk and become a slight lightning rod figure. That seems to have faded over time and things stick more to hard play.

That’s not to say that these two can’t get feisty. The talk I hear from most who play against the Griffins is that they are a team that talk, talk, and talk some more while never being the type to back of their words with a fight. You can get a general sense for some of their gamesmanship when the Admirals face them because they can get under the skin through players such as Tyler Bertuzzi, Mitch Callahan, and Colin Campbell.

If not talk alone, the Griffins do get into very underhanded tactics in an effort to win games despite having the talent to win on talent alone. Last year’s playoffs saw them rip the helmet off of Stefan Elliott and then push a puck at him to earn a helmet violation. As if to remind everyone of that moment – the Griffins did the exact same thing twice during the regular season finale. They ripped Trevor Murphy‘s helmet off and then passed a puck at his skates as he was skating towards the bench to make the necessary change. That wasn’t called -but- when they did it moments later to Mike Liambas – it was. It should go without saying but you’d hope the officials heading into this series are aware of this shady play by the Griffins and start actually calling for roughing when they rip off helmets rather than the secondary helmet violation that follows. This shouldn’t be a thing. The Griffins have somehow made it one.

~Key Contributors~

When you get away from antics and get down to the skill – the Admirals and Griffins are incredibly similar teams. Both can match up in speed, skill, strength, and goaltending. It always feels that the winner when these two meet ends up being the one who maximizes the best use of those qualities on the night.

The Griffins have some real firepower on offense and heads up playmakers. Matt Lorito ended the season as the team’s top scorer by a point ahead of Ben Street. And those two weren’t alone at 50+ points on the season for the Griffins as Evgeny Svechnikov and Martin Frk rounded that list off. Those top three names all had 30 assists or more while it was Frk ending the season as the Griffins top goal scorer with 27.

When looking at the Admirals you’re getting a team entering the playoffs without its best player this season. As rough as it might feel not having Pontus Åberg in the 2017 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs with the Admirals one would have a tough time arguing he doesn’t belong with the Nashville Predators during their 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. This entire season has seen Åberg be a dynamic all-around force for the Admirals and he ended the regular season as the team’s top scorer with 52 points (31 goals, 21 assists) in 56 games.  It will be difficult to fully replace his efforts on the ice -but- his absence creates serious opportunities.

Tyler Moy and Yakov Trenin both arrived at the completion of their respective collegiate and junior playing seasons and both have had time to work their way into the Admirals before the playoffs started. Moy and Trenin tallied their first pro goals last week and it was Trenin who made his pro debut this time last season in the opening round of the playoffs against these exact same Griffins. Both are going to be afforded a chance to really take a leap forward early in their pro careers in an intense playoff atmosphere.

Speaking about playoff experience. The Admirals happen to have someone in their lineup who has 67 career games of Stanley Cup Playoffs experience in Mike Ribeiro. It took the first few games for him and his linemates Frédérick Gaudreau and Anthony Richard to get going but all have been outstanding since coming together. That line, as well as the group featuring Kamenev centering Adam Payerl and Justin Kirkland, have been a constant as far as work ethic is concerned. Those groups could be key for this first round series.

~Between the Pipes~

The Griffins have a very good goaltender in Jared Coreau who should be -the guy- for them in this series. That said, he has split work this season alongside 26-year old Eddie Pasquale and it wasn’t Coreau in net for the Griffins during last year’s playoff series. That means things are a little up in the air for them – but both should be serviceable.

Against the Admirals this season Coreau did make more appearances than Pasquale. Coreau went 3-3-0-0 from 6 appearances with a 2.53 goals against average and 0.904 save percentage. Pasquale managed better numbers in his time against the Admirals this season with a 4-1-0-0 record from 5 appearances with a 1.79 goals against average, 0.945 save percentage, and 2 shutouts.

There is far less mystery when it comes to what the Admirals will do in net. Marek Mazanec has been the Admirals anchor for the 2016-17 season and should continue to be for the playoffs.

Mazanec’s numbers this season have been good. He has a record of 27-17-2-1 from 47 appearances with a 2.65 goals against average, 0.912 save percentage, and 3 shutouts. Yet, things get a bit sour for him when specifically looking at how this season has been against the Griffins. He has a 3-4-1-0 record this season against Grand Rapids with a 3.50 goals against average and 0.887 save percentage.

~No Excuses~

While the Admirals top scorer is up with their NHL affiliate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the Griffins don’t have that issue. The Detroit Red Wings playoff streak of 25-seasons ended this year and that allows for the Griffins to load up. This shouldn’t be an issue to the Admirals though. Above all, the Admirals biggest key to success for this series and the entire 2017 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs should be to focus on their game and the strengths. The first challenge that awaits them is a big one but one that should also put that mindset into perspective. If the Admirals play their brand of hockey they should be good for a long run.

How do you see this opening round series between the Milwaukee Admirals and Grand Rapids Griffins playing out? Who will be the crucial figures for the Admirals that need to step up and deliver against the Griffins? What do the Admirals need to do in order to prevent results such as the regular season finale?

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