It's the home stretch now for the Milwaukee Admirals, and I mean that on a couple of different levels. The Admirals have 17 games left in the season, and 12 of them will take place in the friendly confines of the Bradley Center. It's a nice perk for a team that currently sits in first place in the entire Western Conference.
Here are three of the biggest storylines of how the Admirals have arrived at this point, and two storylines to watch the rest of the way.
Batman In Net
Starring Mark Dekanich, Chet Pickard, and Jeremy Smith. After losing the competition in training camp, Mark Dekanich tweeted that he was going to come to the AHL and dominate. And he has done just that. He sports the 4th best goals against average in the league, tied for the 3rd best save percentage (and .001 behind the league leader), and he has that swagger that helps you get behind him as the protagonist. Chet Pickard was expected to be the Robin to Dex's Batman, but his performance was more Chris O'Donnell and less Burt Ward....so they re-wrote his part a bit, and gave it to Jeremy Smith, who has come a very long way to earn the trust of the coaching staff and the fans. It's great having a stud #1 goaltender....but he can't play all 80 games, and having a dependable guy like Smith has been a huge asset for the team. He has the athleticism to excel, and his rebound control has improved as the season has progressed. Even with Chet in the mix, the Admirals are 2nd in the league in goals against per game, at 2.48. Without the dynamic goaltending duo of Dex and Smitty, the Admirals would not be in 1st place.
True Grit....or, if you'd rather, The Magnificent Seven
Starring Jon Blum, Teemu Laaskso, Roman Josi, Aaron Johnson, Scott Ford, Brett Palin, and Grant Lewis. A tribute to the health of defenseman at both the AHL and NHL levels, only six games this season have featured defenseman that aren't those seven guys. And 4 of THOSE games came after Jon Blum's recall. The benefit of playing with the same cohesive unit of defensemen has been beneficial because they all know the system, and they all know what to expect from each other. They aren't all perfect...some are slow, some are prone to bad decisions, and some aren't great fighters. But some are great breaking out of the zone, pinching in on the power play, and all are responsible in their own end. The Admirals have been outshot by 170 attempts this year, and the defensemen (and backchecking forwards...they've been pretty good too) have helped turn scrambles in front of the goal into clears out of danger. And the defense has helped late leads hold up, as the Admirals have a 23-1-2-3 record when taking a lead into the third period. Without these Rangers, the Admirals would not be in 1st place.
The Social Network
Starring Linus Klasen and Chris Mueller. Simply put, these two guys make whoever they are playing with, better. Klasen creates space for himself and his teammates when he's on the ice, and I credit him for a huge part of Blake Geoffrion's jump-start in the middle of the season. Playing together at even strength and on the power play, Klasen has assisted on six of Geoffrion's eleven goals this year, and been on the ice for eight of them. That, plus his own production (22g, 23a, 55 games), has made him a dynamic player that we're just not used to seeing around these parts. His interest in defense at times has been questioned, but he has worked to improve that aspect of his game. As for Mueller, in the midst of the 10 game roadtrip in November, Mueller carried the team, and we can't be happier that he was rewarded with an NHL contract, and was able to get some time in Nashville. Perhaps the most fun line to watch this season has been the combination of Mueller, Gabriel Bourque, and Matt Halischuk, as speed and hard work have created great offensive chances on a regular basis. Without these two guys..... and their interest in Farmville and Family Feud, the Admirals would not be in 1st place.
Storylines cut on the chopping table..... "The Kids Are Alright" starring Gabriel Bourque and Roman Josi. "The Non-Fighter", starring the whole team, as they are last in the league in penalty minutes. "LANE: Legacy", starring Lane Lambert, who wasn't given a ton of skill to work with, but has been able to get this team to first place.
Mystery Men - the ATO's
Whose junior or college seasons are going to end early, and who may get the chance to play some minutes for the Admirals down the stretch? Paul Fenton gave me this response last weekend in Milwaukee: "I've got some guys that are signed...two kids in Guelph....Mike Latta and (Taylor) Beck are signed contracted guys. And if they do get eliminated out of the playoffs, they'll be coming here. Ryan Ellis is the same way. I've got a couple of European guys that I'm talking about. And I've got Ben Ryan coming out of Notre Dame. The way that I have it right now, I think I've got seven guys penciled in that I could see being here by the end of March and contributing."
Beck: 90 points in 58 games.
Latta: 84 points & 151 PIM's in 63 games.
Ellis: 91 points in 53 games.
Pardon us if we're rooting against Guelph and Windsor this month...
While the home schedule is favorable to the Admirals the rest of the way, they also have more games than most of the rest of the division left to play. While it gives them more chances to tighten their grasp on first place, it'll also test the conditioning of this team. There will be a couple of four-games-in-five-days stretches, and a couple three-in-three stretches. The playoff race in the division is still wide open, and pretty much every team is still playing meaningful games. And it looks like the Admirals will have to continue to find ways to win with people like Jon Blum, Matt Halischuk, and Blake Geoffrion playing with the Preds. The pressure will be on guys like Klasen and Mueller to continue to produce, and on 4th year guys like Andreas Thuresson and Kelsey Wilson to produce more than they have been this season. And it will give opportunities to younger guys like Ryan Thang, Ryan Flynn, Gabriel Bourque, and Roman Josi to rise to the occasion.
It's great to be in first place. Here's hoping we'll have similar things to say on April 10th.