(Photo Credit: Mark Newman)
The time has finally arrived. The Milwaukee Admirals are back in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs. It may have only been a year’s absence but, after twelve straight seasons of playoff hockey in Milwaukee, that simply felt like a decade ago. Fortunately for everyone they get to voice their appreciation and welcome playoff hockey back at the BMO Harris Bradley Center tonight and tomorrow with the Admirals, as Central Division champions, controlling home ice against the Grand Rapids Griffins in the first round of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs.
~Kind of Grand, Sort of Rapid, Flock of Griffins~
The Grand Rapids Griffins finished the regular season with a record of 44-30-1-1 (90 points). In their second to last game of the season they found themselves in a tie for the third seed of the Central Division with the Rockford IceHogs and in a showdown against them to really help dictate how the playoff picture was going to look. The Griffins lost that game on the road 4-0 and then proceeded to lose on home ice 3-2 the following night to the Bakersfield Condors. They finished with a 0.592 points percentage and claimed fourth place of the Central Division.
There was a time where it looked like the Griffins were going to be the team to beat in terms of winning the Central Division crown. They set a franchise record winning streak by putting together fifteen straight wins and would pull off another winning streak of thirteen-games roughly two months later.
A harsh reality of the Griffins 2015-16 season is that they are a particularly streaky team. As fantastic as those winning streaks both sound their season began in misery. The Griffins took five-games before finally earning their first win of the season and were a rough 2-8-0-1 (5 points) from their opening eleven-games prior to marching to that franchise record fifteen-game winning streak.
The Griffins currently head into the playoffs on a losing streak which matched a season high. They have lost five-straight games in regulation going into the opening round series against the Admirals. The first time they lost five straight games in the regular season they won 9-1 over the IceHogs on the road before dipping and diving before their then thirteen-game winning streak.
Again, this team is either extremely hot or extremely cold. A major question that should get answered early in this series is whether or not the layoff from the end of the regular season to the first round playoff match-up against the Admirals helped to get these Griffins back on track after squandering away third place in the Central Division with a rough patch to their regular season. What Griffins are going to show up: a refocused group that has corrected its recent faults or more of the same?
~The Playoff Rewind~
There are many names on this season’s Griffins roster who were part of the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs. For those in need of having your memories refreshed the Griffins were able to enjoy a solid run one-season ago that ended in the AHL Western Conference Finals.
In the first round the second seeded Griffins faced the seventh seeded Toronto Marlies in a best-of-five round series that went the distance. That series featured something that will not be happening when the Griffins face the Admirals. It was a 2-3 playoff format in which the Griffins, as the higher seeded opponent, was able to chose between starting the series on home ice for the opening two-games or ending it at home for the final three-games. It worked a treat if only to make them earn their home ice as the Marlies won the first two games of the series in Toronto. The Griffins would sweep the final three games that were held in Grand Rapids to advance. This season the Griffins and Admirals best-of-five series will have a more functional 2-2-1 format that sees the Admirals host the first two-games of the series and the possible fifth and decisive game.
In the second round the Griffins advanced to face the fourth seeded IceHogs where they would win the best-of-seven series 4-1. The Griffins claimed the first two-games on home ice, lost the first contest in Rockford, and then snagged the final two-games in Rockford to close out the series before the final two-games held in Grand Rapids were even needed.
The Western Conference Finals last year were between the Griffins and the top seeded, and totally West if you ignore Geography, Utica Comets. The Griffins would push the Comets to six-games but fall 4-2 to the top seed. The Griffins earned a Game 2 victory in Utica but dropped the first and last games they had of their three at home. That opened the door for a Comets finish to the series in Utica where they punched a ticket to the Calder Cup Finals in Game 6.
Of the expected Griffins roster, going into tonight’s game, there will be nineteen returning names from last season’s Griffins playoff roster. That is just a little under 60% of last year’s team that nearly punched a ticket to the Calder Cup Finals that will be available to the Griffins against the Admirals.
~The Stanley Cup Playoffs Effect~
Before the puck has even dropped on this series the Stanley Cup has already made an impact on the way this series between the Admirals and Griffins will be played. The Griffins parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last night by the Tampa Bay Lightning. This allows for the Red Wings organization to disengage properties that could contribute at the AHL level and bring recent Stanley Cup Playoff playing experience with them.
The Griffins are set to see the return of forwards Andreas Athanasiou and Joakim Andersson to their ranks from the Red Wings. Both players featured in all contests of the five-game playoff series for the Red Wings. Athanasiou scored a goal while Andersson tacked on an assist during their playoff run.
Athanasiou has played 37 games at the NHL level this season and produced 14 points (9 goals, 5 assists). As a member of the Griffins this season he has added 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists) in 26 games. Last season in the Calder Cup Playoffs he was able to produce 9 points (5 goals, 4 assists) from 16 games.
Andersson’s career split to this point between the NHL and AHL is rather tight in terms of games played. He has logged his entire North American professional playing career under the Red Wings banner but has seen varied to lesser results while playing at the top flight. In his NHL career he has logged 205 games, scored 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists), has a plus/minus rating of -11, and has 27 games of playoff experience where he has 8 points (2 goals, 6 assists). At the AHL level in his career he has logged 208 games, scored 106 points (41 goals, 65 assists), has a plus/minus rating of +8, and has 20 games of playoff experience with 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists).
The Admirals parent club, the Nashville Predators, currently find themselves locked up at 2-2 in their opening round playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks. That series now effectively has become a best-of-three series. That might oddly work to the Predators favor should the series trend of no home team having won yet holds to the finish. The Ducks host Game 5 and Game 7 if it is needed.
Should the Predators be eliminated while the Admirals remain active in the Calder Cup Playoffs their returning faces would include team captain Colton Sissons, last season’s top scorer for the Admirals Viktor Arvidsson, and effectively this season’s captain when the true captain wasn’t in the AHL Cody Bass. All three of the possible returning names to the Admirals made their debut to the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the Predators current series against the Ducks.
~All Top Scorers Must End In An “E” Sound~
The Griffins offense this season was the second most potent in the Western Conference. As a team they recorded 238 goals which was only bettered by the Texas Stars (277 goals) and edged out the third closest team -the Admirals- by 14 goals. While the Admirals feature a rather balanced scoring group the Griffins have a few players that do separate themselves from the pack.
Andy Miele was the Griffins leading scorer in the regular season. He managed to follow up what was a highly successful first season with the Griffins in 2014-15 with a rather close effort this year: 62 points (18 goals, 44 assists) in 75 games with 77 penalty minutes and a plus/minus rating of +18.
Miele is followed on the Griffins scoring list by the team’s leader in goal scoring, Eric Tangradi. After bouncing around a few organizations for the past three-seasons Tangradi appears to have found a place of renaissance in the Red Wings organization. He has contributed 56 points (28 goals, 28 assists) in 72 games as a member of the Griffins with a plus/minus rating of +17 which were all career bests.
Third in scoring for the Griffins is Mark Zengerle. In his second professional playing season since finishing up a playing career for the Wisconsin Badgers he set a career high in the scoring department with 47 points (9 goals, 38 assists) in 72 games. His performance this season bettered his first professional season as a member of the Griffins by 10 points.
There are then a few hot shots worth keeping an eye on in the series. Anthony Mantha, who has scored 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists) in 60 games. Martin Frk, who has scored 44 points (27 goals, 17 assists) in 67 games. Mitch Callahan, who has scored 32 points (19 goals, 13 assists) in 62 games. Robbie Russo, who was the Griffins top scoring defenseman this season with 39 points (5 goals, 34 assists) in 71 games. And the oddity that is Louis-Marc Aubrey who has scored 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 75 games this season which includes being the Griffins top scorer against the Admirals in this season’s head-to-head with 7 points (6 goals, 1 assist) in 8 games.
~Solving The Coreau Woes~
The Griffins possible secret weapon to this series could come in net in the form of Jared Coreau. This season he appeared in 47 games, held a record of 29-15-2-1, 2.43 goals against average, 0.922 save percentage, and locked down 6 shutouts.
In his career he has faced the Admirals Coreau has played in 12 games, made 11 starts, holds a record of 8-3-0-0, has stopped 273/293 shots on goal for a 0.939 save percentage, has a 1.94 goals against average, and has earned 3 shutouts over the course of three-seasons. He has played in two-games against the Admirals that have spilled past regulation and won each of them (once in overtime, once in a shootout). He has also been yanked from a start once against the Admirals this season.
If there were any question mark to Coreau it would be the simple fact that he has played in only one career AHL playoff game and lost. It came in last season’s Calder Cup Playoffs in Game 2 of the Griffins opening round series on the road against the Marlies. He stopped 21/24 shots on goal for a 3.10 goals against average and 0.875 save percentage.
What are your expectations for this first round series for the Milwaukee Admirals? What is the most concerning thing to you about the Grand Rapids Griffins? Does the fact that both teams had less than ideal finishes to the regular season, Admirals losing their last two-games and the Griffins losing their last five-games, make a difference in the form that these two teams enter the playoffs with?
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