The 2019 AHL playoffs began this week, and the two-seeded Milwaukee Admirals will take on the three-seeded Iowa Wild in the first round. Milwaukee rode a 14-game point streak (11-0-3) to end the regular season, climbing from seventh place in the Central Division to second. Conversely, Iowa struggled down the stretch, going 3-6-1 in their final ten games and only recovering with help from reinforcements from St. Paul.
Milwaukee will host Iowa in a best-of-five first round with an odd definition of home-ice advantage. Games one and two will be in Des Moines, and the final three will be at home in Milwaukee. The series kicks off on Sunday, the 21st.
This will be Iowa’s first appearance in the Calder Cup playoffs compared to Milwaukee’s fifteenth, but Iowa held the edge in the regular season, going 4-1-1 against the Admirals and outscoring them 18 to 9.
Milwaukee squared off against Iowa three times in November, being shut out in the first two games and outscored nine to zero; the Admirals escaped with a 3-2 shootout win in the third outing. Milwaukee was thoroughly dismantled twice more at the end of December and end of January. The Admirals’ only regulation win versus Iowa this season came in the midst of their unstoppable streak in late March and early April.
It’s uncertain how much or little of an anomaly the Admirals’ season-ending pace was, but, regardless, there is a massive elephant in the room. This is the least amount of points Milwaukee has made the playoffs with since 2012, and it’s their chance to win a series for the first time since 2011 (defeating Texas 4-2). Since capturing the Calder Cup in 2004, Milwaukee has made the playoffs in 12 of 14 seasons and won five series over that span—three of which were in 2006.
Of their Central Division opponents, Iowa might be their best match-up (despite it not being a good one in the regular season). NHL reinforcements will be a tough challenge for the Admirals, but how does Milwaukee match up in this series?
The Admirals struggled offensively for much of the season. Their 14-game point streak was what propelled them to a positive goal differential. With 217 goals this season, Milwaukee finished 22nd in goals per game with 2.86. 169 of those goals were scored at even strength.
Milwaukee had three consistent offensive threats this season: Adam Helewka (50 points), Cole Schneider (47 points), and Anthony Richard (47 points). Helewka has been an excellent addition this season, outscoring Emil Pettersson by nearly 0.40 points per game since the two were traded for each other.
Additionally, this is one of the deepest offensive teams Milwaukee has iced in some time. Four other forwards capable of top-end production—Tolvanen, Trenin, Dauphin and Blackwell—are nice complements to the big three. Milwaukee has an impressive nine forwards totaling 25 points or more this season, and that provides an intriguing match-up against Iowa, who can boast the same number.
Milwaukee is carrying 18 forwards on their roster. With each of them healthy, a likely lineup will consist of the following (Scratches: Magwood [C], Novak [C], Roy [C], Olivier [RW], Ross [LW], Clark [LW]):
Milwaukee’s Likely Forward Combinations
|Y. Trenin - #13||C. Blackwell - #43||C. Schneider - #25|
|A. Helewka - #23||L. Dauphin - #16||A. Richard - #90|
|P. Di Giuseppe - #52||J. Kirkland - #19||E. Tolvanen - #11|
|J. Pendenza - #2||T. Gaudet - #10||T. Jeannot - #18|
- X-Factor: Colin Blackwell. This one was a toss-up. Helewka and Richard were solid options, but Blackwell has the ability to take this series over for the Admirals.
Despite playing a shortened season, with time in Nashville and on injured reserve, Blackwell finished third on the Admirals with 14 goals. He has the ability to score from nearly anywhere in the offensive zone with a lethal wrist shot, good deflection abilities, and a preference for the net-front. His skating will be critical to an offensive zone cycle versus the Wild.
Iowa had a much more productive offensive season, finishing 11th in the AHL in goals per game with 3.18. Pacing the team in scoring was former Predator and perennial AHL All-Star Cal O’Reilly, who finished with 16 goals and 67 points in an equal number of games. Gerald Mayhew and Kyle Rau round out the top three in team scoring with 60 and 53 points respectively.
The Wild’s scoring was mostly led by veterans this season, but youngsters Mason Shaw, Dmitry Sokolov, and Will Bitten chipped in for a combined 92 points in 199 combined appearances.
What will likely cause Milwaukee fits this series is that late addition of NHL talent. Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway, and Luke Kunin will all suit up for Iowa this spring, bringing 233 games of NHL experience and nearly 0.8 points per game in AHL scoring this season.
Iowa’s Likely Forward Combinations
|J. Greenway - #2||L. Kunin - #19||R. Donato|
|G. Mayhew - #20||C. O'Reilly - #9||W. Bitten - #14|
|K. Rau - #42||M. Shaw - #23||M. Read - #26|
|M. Liambas - #17||C. Beck - #36||S. Anas - #7|
- X-Factor: Ryan Donato. That top line for Iowa can be as lethal as any in the American league. Milwaukee has depth, but Blackwell & Co. will have their hands full going head-to-head with three NHL players.
Take the play above for example. Even with all five defenders in relatively good position, Greenway, Kunin and Donato pick them apart for an easy goal. Donato is the most mobile of the three and an excellent position player; if he is on his game, he’ll slant the tables towards Iowa well.
The Admirals have some well-known names on defense. Frederic Allard and Alexandre Carrier are simply waiting for their opportunity with the big club. Captain Jarred Tinordi is a reliable, safe, stay-at-home defender who has the ability to activate and create plays and scoring chances. And don’t forget about Matt Donovan, who has had a quiet but effective return to Milwaukee since his time in Nashville.
Defense will be Milwaukee’s key this series, and, as referenced above, it will be tested heavily. Despite finishing third in the league in goals-against at 2.62 per game, expect the Admirals’ forward group to be playing tighter to the face-off dots than the points. Iowa is a high-event team, with ten skaters of theirs putting 100 or more shots on net this season.
On the other hand, Milwaukee’s group—a good mix of steady veterans and younger offensive talents—might be tailor-made for this match-up. With depth options of Osburn, Pedrie, Pyrochta, Savage and Smith, expect the Admirals to line up something like this:
Milwaukee’s Likely Defense Pairs
|J. Tinordi - #28||F. Allard - #58|
|M. Donovan - #46||A. Carrier - #55|
|A. Plant - #20||D. Siemens - #15|
- X-Factor: Frederic Allard. Allard missed 11 games due to a shoulder injury this season, but was on a tear before hitting the shelf. He was pacing the Admirals defense playing alongside Matt Donovan before Karl Taylor swapped him and Alexandre Carrier. The new top-four provides more defensive balance, but Allard is capable of making this an easier north-south series for his forwards.
It’s a simple play that Allard executes in the clip above, but quick transitions like that will be key against Iowa. He pinches deep into the zone, creates a medium-danger scoring chance and a rebound that’s put home. Look for plays like that if Milwaukee is to be successful this coming week.
Brennan Minnel led Iowa defenders in points with 44 (2 goals, 42 assists). Carson Soucy had 20 points (5 goals, 15 assists). Nate Prosser, Hunter Warner, Matt Bartkowski, and Gustav Bouramman round out the Wild defense. Iowa’s scoring is centered in their forwards, and their defense hasn’t been excellent this season, surrendering 3.03 goals per game, good for 18th in the AHL. Despite that high mark, most of their defenders have benefited from high-end offense to pad their underlying numbers. Keep an eye on Warner and Bouramman; they are easily their weakest duo.
Prosser and Bartkowski have extensive NHL experience, but the Wild lack considerable depth on their back end. It’s their most vulnerable position and could be exposed by the likes of Anthony Richard and Yakov Trenin on the forecheck or Kirkland or Schneider in front of the net.
Iowa’s Likely Defense Pairs
|M. Bartkowski - #44||B. Menell - #27|
|C. Soucy - #21||H. Warner - #37|
|L. Belpedio - #8||N. Prosser - #39|
- X-Factor: Louie Belpedio (on the All-Name Team) has 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists). The rookie played college hockey for Miami. He recorded his first multi-point night against San Jose in his first professional game last April...a franchise first for a rookie debut. He hasn’t put up scorching numbers this season, but he’s a shooting machine, with 147 on net this year, and is a decent possession driver.
Troy Grosenick has been THE guy for Milwaukee all season. Grosenick is third in the AHL with a save percentage of .919 while facing the fifth-most shots league-wide. He has played in 46 contests for the Admirals and been recalled to Nashville twice to serve as a backup. Grosenick will get the nod this series unless a hiccup occurs. He’s been dominant this year, leading the AHL in Quality Starts percentage (a start above league-average SV%) with 73.3%, and finishing second in Goals Saved Above Average with an astonishing 20.99.
[Ed.: GSAA is one of those ambiguous terms. This here is a GSAA metric that looks at raw shot quantity without looking at shot quality, by applying a league-average SV% to the number of shots the goalie faced. Grosenick has done very well at stopping the shots he’s faced, and he’s faced a lot of them; the Admirals have relied on him and he hasn’t let them down.]
Tom McCollum has played a solid season for Milwaukee. The AHL journeyman spent many years within the Red Wings organization and was signed in the off-season to be Grosenick’s backup. The 29-year old is a reliable backup for the Admirals, if need be, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.
- X-Factor: Troy Grosenick, like Pekka Rinne in Nashville, has strapped the team to his back and carried them when they were a bit weak and shaky. The Admirals play well in front of Grosenick, and his puck tracking has been next level this season, which will bode well against Iowa’s top line.
Iowa’s decision in net is a tough one. On one hand there is Kaapo Kahkonen, who had Milwaukee’s (and most of the league’s) number earlier this season. He’s played 39 games this season and has posted a .908 save percentage, a 61.5 Quality Start percentage, and saved 4.45 goals above average. The young Finnish netminder is in his first professional season in North America after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
Kahkonen secured two shutouts against the Admirals early in the season. He was 2-1-1 against Milwaukee this season.
Andrew Hammond has played 33 games for the Wild this season, but, interestingly, got the call in their last three as they were fighting to secure a playoff spot. Hammond is a steadying presence in net for a younger Wild team. He posted a .910 save percentage. a Quality Start rate of 57.6% and stopped 6.40 goals above average.
Hammond has defeated the Admirals twice this season, including a shutout in late January. He and Kahkonen combined for nine shutouts total this season.
- X-Factor: If Kahkonen regains some of his swagger from earlier in the season, the Admirals are in for a tough fight. But Hammond was nearly impenetrable his last three starts, surrendering just four goals on 90 total shots.
If you thought special teams would clear the waters of this match-up a bit, you’d likely be wrong. To go along with their stellar defensive play this season, Milwaukee recorded the fourth-best penalty kill league-wide at 85.0%. Plus, they threw in eight shorthanded goals. Keep an eye on Jarred Tinordi: he led the Admirals in penalty minutes per ice time with 85 on the season.
Their power play had its ups and downs throughout the season and ultimately finished 23rd at 17.5%, surrendering five shorthanded goals against. The power play flows through the usual suspects (Blackwell, Helweka, Richard, etc.), but Matt Donovan and Eeli Tolvanen could be an added benefit.
Milwaukee uses a 1-3-1 power play system with shots typically coming from the left side via the point triangle. But on set face-off plays, puck control usually remains on the right side before the net-front forward passes out to the left side—like you will see in the second clip.
Milwaukee’s penalty kill differs from time to time, but the wedge + one strategy is their most effective. It essentially utilizes a rover to cover the point player and two passers/shooters in a 1-3-1 power play while the wedge beneath it collapses and shifts:
- X-Factor: Cole Schneider. He led the Admirals in power-play scoring with 10 power-play goals this season, but only four came with the Admirals; Blackwell led the team with seven in Milwaukee. Schneider has been tenacious around the net since coming over from Hartford and has provided a rebounding presence this team has lacked in the past.
For added benefit, Schneider executes the set play flawlessly, quarterbacking the power play from below the face-off dots.
As has been the theme in this preview, Iowa’s strengths and weaknesses are flipped. The Wild finished with the 13th-ranked penalty kill at 81.4% but scored 10 shorthanded goals, too. Their second pairing on defense has severely contributed to their time on the kill with a combined 168 penalty minutes between Warner and Soucy.
Their power play, on the other hand, has been elite. It’s been clicking all season and will only get better with Donato, Greenway and Kunin. At 23.8%, they finished second in the league, but surrendered seven shorthanded goals.
Kyle Rau has been their sniper all season with 17 goals on the man advantage, but their power play benefits so well from elite passing by Mayhew, O’Reilly and Read.
You’ll notice in the clip above of Milwaukee’s penalty kill that Iowa uses the 1-3-1 power play system, too. That’s unsurprising, but their penalty kill is more of a collapsing diamond style:
I’m curious to see if they will adapt to a wedge system against Milwaukee. Otherwise, a 1-3-1 power play with good passers and shooters can expose a diamond system that rotates too much.
- X-Factor: Sam Anas. Iowa’s power play is loaded with talent, but Anas is a curious case. He was second on the team with nine power play goals, but I don’t anticipate he will get many minutes as a shooter. He’s got an excellent shot for the right side of a 1-3-1 system, bur I could see him trying to provide more backdoor support too.
Rau will be a dual threat on the power play and penalty kill, but he’s the obvious choice.