(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
Thanks once again to Ryan Miller of Admirals Roundtable for bringing us news from the North! - Dirk
While the NHL is putting on a party in Raleigh this weekend, the AHL is putting on one of their own in Hershey, PA. It's a party that invited two Milwaukee Admirals players, Linus Klasen and Mark Dekanich -- arguably their offensive and defensive MVP's for the first half of the season. And this seems like as good a time as any to reflect on the season up to this point.
Heading into the All-Star break, the Admirals have the best record in the conference, sporting a mark of 26-13-2-6, good for 60 points.
That's great. But here's the rub: the 6th place team in the division is just two points out of first. 7th place is just five points back.
Unprecedented competition in the eight-team West Division. But still, it's quite the accomplishment to be sitting where they are right now.
How have they managed to do it? We'll explore, after the jump.It's not the special teams. They own the 18th ranked power play and the 23rd ranked penalty kill.
It's not the fact that they can score four goals a game on a consistent basis. While they have played a few games less than most teams in the conference, they have scored the 3rd-least amount of goals so far this season. Only two players on the team have scored at least ten goals -- Klasen and Chris Mueller. For comparison sake, the Chicago Wolves have SEVEN such players, and they sit 7th in the division standings.
It's not the veteran players leading the charge on offense. Jamie Lundmark quit on the team and went to play in Europe. Andreas Thuresson went 30 games in between goals. Steve Begin has spent a lot of time injured. Kelsey Wilson hasn't been a force offensively.
But they find ways to win games.
Goaltender Mark Dekanich is a major reason why the Admirals have been in a position to win games. After losing the competition to backup Pekka Rinne in training camp, Dekanich has been nothing short of amazing. While there were times last year that he looked a bit frantic in net, he has been the team's anchor this year, and is starting to have that goaltender swagger that you like to see.
Tough to argue with Dex's stats, as he ranks among the league leaders in every category. 18 wins, .931 save percentage, 1.95 goals against, and four shutouts -- three of which were of the 1-0 variety, two of which were won in a shootout.
The goalies can't do it alone, and much credit also should be given to the defensive corps -- a mix of veteran leadership and up-and-coming draft picks that compliment each other well. They are a huge reason why the Admirals have given up the least amount of goals in the division. Scott Ford is +12. Teemu Laakso is +11 and has 14 assists. After a slow start, Aaron Johnson is playing some of his best hockey of the season lately. Brett Palin has been steady as a stay-at-home defenseman. Roman Josi is exciting to watch, and he plays more responsibly than his -6 rating would suggest. Josi has scored four goals in his last five games, including an overtime game-winner on Saturday night. Jon Blum is 2nd on the team in points, but has been hit-or-miss in his own end lately. He will need a strong second half defensively to avoid being passed by Josi and Laakso on the depth charts.
Outside of Linus Klasen (20g, 19a), the Admirals have needed to score by committee. The need is based on the offensive skill level on the roster, and having to adjust when the talent gets called up to Nashville. We expected to have Nick Spaling for more than four games. Chris Mueller was good last season, but has been great this season, and we can't be happier for him that he's having some success at the NHL level. Ryan Thang has been anointed the Mueller-In-Training, and has been playing a similarly successful game since Mueller was recalled (playing on a line with Blake Geoffrion and Linus Klasen lately doesn't hurt). Matt Halischuk missed some time with an injury, but really stepped up his game when he returned to action after Christmas, and his promotion was deserved.
Some of the success can be attributed to the performance of the rookies on the team. While other organizations stock their AHL teams with 4-A journeyman talent, Nashville has been good about giving their prospects a chance to make a difference early in their professional careers. It's not surprising that three of the Admirals' top six scorers are rookies -- and that doesn't include Klasen, who isn't considered a rookie. After a slow start, Blake Geoffrion has been playing his best hockey over the last month, culminating in a 5 point night last Friday against Peoria (2g, 3a). He's finally starting to show signs of what made him the Hobey Baker winner, and how he plays the rest of the season will play a huge part in the Admirals' success. Gabriel Bourque, while not denting the scoreboard as much, has been fun to watch. He is fast, tenacious, andis not afraid to throw his body around. And Roman Josi is not long for the AHL.
Throw in some home cooking (best home winning percentage in the conference), being able to avoid extended losing streaks (the longest is 3 regulation losses in a row, just once), and coaches that are able to get the most out of what they have been given, and that's how the Admirals have been able to be successful so far this season.