For the first time during one of these School Day Games that the Milwaukee Admirals put together I decided it was a good idea to wear ear protection. I had my headphones on with no audio going through them – and the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena was still rocking. These games just haven’t disappointed since the Admirals put them on and the 7,958 in attendance got to see a show. The Admirals beat the Manitoba Moose 3-2 in a shootout to extend their winning streak to four-games and keep this playoff push alive.
What instantly struck me after the weekend finished was how well the Admirals played as a team. Things felt and looked more structured defensively and nearly mistake free. What came after that was the gut feeling of how the true test was going to be carrying that momentum into the AM game against the Moose and beating them. The Admirals are at a stage in the season where they can’t afford setbacks anymore. They need to start gaining wins if they are to make it into the 2018 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. That thought is in the mind. The memory of what had happened the last time these two teams played was in mind. And the core focus was less on retaliation and more towards going about business and winning. They succeeded.
This was such a similar game to Sunday’s shootout win against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Both the Penguins and Moose have a relentless attacking ability that the Admirals really can’t commit to trying to defeat them in a track meet style of hockey game. Instead, they leaned on them and grinded them out with defense. Yes, both games end up in a shootout but both games end in victory. The defense is coming a key attribute for the Admirals in this recent run of games and that was oddly a core issue for the team this season. There just haven’t been costly mistakes made or structural lapses on defense. And that has meant everything.
Where this game did get sapped for the Admirals was their penalty trouble. You simply can’t afford to give a team with as much firepower as the Moose have chance after chance on a power-play. And you certainly shouldn’t give them 1:45 of a five-on-three power-play to work with, either. The Admirals penalty kill has been great. The Admirals defense has been well improved. But there has to be a balance. The Admirals still have something to learn and that’s playing with a lead and managing a game without compressing themselves to the point an attack requires the length of the ice to achieve.
Now, about these shootouts. It is a one-two-three punch for the Admirals. Justin Kirkland steps up first. Frédérick Gaudreau steps up second. And Anders Lindbäck closes the door for the win. What is still so amusing is how Kirkland’s first shootout attempt of the year came back on 12/9/17 in Manitoba simply because his family was in attendance and he would be fired up for it. He has now gone 7/8 in the shootout this season and the Admirals have gone 8-1 in shootout games this season. The lone Admirals shootout loss came when he missed his one and only shootout attempt of the season. He leads the league in shootout goals. The Admirals lead the league in shootout wins. And the next win for the Admirals in a shootout will set a team record in the AHL history of the franchise for shootout wins in a single season – currently tied with the 2009-10 club. It’s a high stress way to win games but the Admirals have been surgical with that 1-2-3 trio. Against two of the top teams in the entire league? You have to be happy seeing wins no matter what for the Admirals these last two times out.
After the game, Admirals captain Trevor Smith described the moves around the NHL Trade Deadline as something that re-energized the team. While the offense hasn’t always been there for these four games the energy and battle levels of the Admirals feels like it is at an all-time high for the season. This recent play has been playoff hockey. It needs to be. And all of the players brought in provide that maturity and grit needed to succeed in that style of a hockey game. What you like today is that the Admirals won. What you love today is that the Admirals won and didn’t think much of Brendan Lemieux and what he did in that previous game. Right now? It is all about the Admirals focusing on themselves and the task at hand today. It’s working.
When the game wrapped up I had the chance to speak with Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. I then was able to chat with Kirkland, Lindbäck, and Smith. These were today’s post-game interviews.
What were your final thoughts from this morning’s game? After how sour that last road trip went and all the trades that followed: do you believe in this Milwaukee Admirals team making the playoffs or did the change happen too late? What has impressed you the most during this winning streak?
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