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Preview: Admirals Advance in AHL Playoffs

Milwaukee now faces a Calder Cup favorite in Chicago.

Milwaukee Admirals

As we predicted in our playoff preview, it wasn’t short or pretty, but the Milwaukee Admirals have won a playoff round for the first time since the 2010-11 season. In a five-game series, the Admirals dispatched the Manitoba Moose, who finished one place ahead of them in the Central Division standings.

Manitoba controlled much of the series, but Milwaukee capitalized when it needed to and was backstopped to three wins thanks to outstanding performances from Devin Cooley and Connor Ingram. Now, the Admirals move on to face the division winners, the Chicago Wolves, who swept Rockford last round by a combined score of 14 to 4.

The Wolves are arguably the best team in the AHL. Milwaukee went 5-8-1 in their season series against Chicago but that includes a 5-2-0 stretch to end the year after an 0-6-1 start. In all likelihood, the Admirals aren’t moving onto the next round. But, here’s a breakdown of how they’ll need to play to have a chance—with some help from Sarah at Canes Country.

Forwards

The Admirals’ offensive lineup should remain the same entering this series, but if things go south quickly, Karl Taylor has options to switch things up. Rocco Grimaldi—who was previously expected to be out for the season—made a surprise return in game four against Manitoba, and he’ll be a massive catalyst for this group; he bolsters a top-six that includes Cody Glass, Cole Smith, Jimmy Huntington, Tommy Novak, and Brayden Burke.

Once again, Glass and Novak will be the conduit that any offensive success runs through. The former notched just one goal in three games against the Moose, but he was noticeable each night, winning puck battles and playing stingy defense. Novak was, per usual, quietly excellent, notching one goal and six points in five games and leading Milwaukee at even-strength and on the power play.

Before the Manitoba series, we noted just how important Huntington and Burke would be to the Admirals’ depth scoring, and they delivered. Huntington scored two goals and three points in five games, and Burke added three goals and four points. The Admirals aren’t fast enough to score at will off the rush, but wingers like Huntington and Burke have shown that Milwaukee can succeed by winning battles after dumping the puck in deep, moving the goalie laterally, and crashing the net as shown below.

In game five, Karl Taylor may have found a few third line that can match up against other top lines defensively and generate scoring chances: Joseph LaBate—Juuso Pärssinen—Cole Schneider. For as long as they’re together, that should be a key shutdown unit against Chicago along with Mitch McLain—Graham Knott—Mathieu Olivier.

If Taylor needs to make some changes, Kole Sherwood and Egor Afanasyev—who’s been scratched since game three against Manitoba—are available to come into the lineup.

On their own end of the ice, one season-long trend is that Milwaukee needs more from their wingers. The forwards have to be in better puck-support positions to help the defense when they retrieve pucks. The Admirals didn’t do an awful job at stopping Manitoba’s rush chances, but they lost far too many battles on dumped-in pucks as shown above.

Chicago: The Wolves have been lethal offensively all season and are led by AHL scoring champion, Andrew Poturalski, who notched 101 points in 71 games. Behind him, Stefan Noesen was third in the league in scoring (85 points), and Jack Drury is emerging as a key difference-maker with four points in three playoff games. From Sarah at Canes Country:

[Drury’s] got a long NHL future ahead of him and I expect a huge postseason from him. He’s great on the scoresheet, makes really smart plays to his teammates, and appears to see the ice well. He’s also not afraid to get physical.

Down the lineup, expect to see a lot from CJ Smith, David Gust, and Josh Leivo to round out the Wolves’ secondary scoring. But Sarah also pointed to Spencer Smallman as a player to watch:

[Smallman’s] advanced stats, for as much as we can get detailed analytics on AHL players, aren’t anything special. But, he’s been great on the penalty kill with three shorthanded goals towards the end of the regular season. He’s got a lot of energy and Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky is putting more and more trust in him.


Defenders

Expect Milwaukee to roll with the same blue line they did to end their Manitoba series: Del Gaizo—Tennyson, Donovan—Healey, Davies—Blujus. Tennyson missed game four and is still battling through injury, and Alex Biega left the team for personal reasons, allowing Dylan Blujus to enter the lineup late in the series against the Moose. David Farrance is still injured, so if someone else goes down, expect Jake McLaughlin to enter the lineup.

One of the Admirals’ issues all season has been generating offense from the point. Most north-south puck movement has been low-danger shots thrown at the net (highlighted above) with players hoping for a tip or a weird bounce. Milwaukee’s blueliners put just 29 shots on net against Manitoba compared to 73 from the Moose. If the Admirals can get their cycle flowing and defenders attacking the net as well (highlighted below), then they have a good chance at disrupting Chicago’s defensive gameplan.

The Wolves will play a much faster game than Manitoba did, which will render Milwaukee’s 1—3—1 neutral zone structure fairly moot. Defenders will need to attack at the blue line and get help from the forwards to slow down Chicago’s attack, forcing them to dump the puck in as Josh Healey demonstrates well in the clip below.

Chicago: The Wolves’ six-man blur line consists of Joey Keane, Jalen Chatfield, Max Lajoie, Cavan Fitzgerald, Josh Jacobs, and Jesper Sellgren. On paper, that may not seem like the most electrifying group, but they combined for 135 points in the regular season compared to 123 for Milwaukee’s six defenders. Keane and Lajoie should lead the way offensively, and Chatfield could be this series’ Leon Gawanke as he notched seven points in eight games against the Admirals this season.


Goalies

Milwaukee was forced to start Devin Cooley for their first two games against Manitoba, and he turned in his two best performances of the year, recording a 0.952 and 0.977 save percentage, respectively.

Even with Connor Ingram back from Nashville, Cooley started game three and faltered, allowing five goals on 35 shots. The Admirals went back to Ingram for games four and five, and he stopped 27 of 28 shots to claim the series on Sunday. Ingram is a huge boost to this team and central to any hopes they have of beating Chicago. He’ll start every game barring injury, and Cooley will be his back-up.

Chicago: The Wolves will go with veteran Alex Lyon in goal with rookie Pyotr Kochetkov in Carolina. Lyon posted a 0.912 save percentage in the regular season but has been excellent in the playoffs, recording a 0.939 save percentage in three games against Rockford. The key here is he’s not as battle-tested; Lyon faced just 66 shots all series, including a low of 16 in game two. Sarah from Canes Country has the latest on the Wolves and Freddie Andersen:

The Hurricanes appear to be exercising a lot of caution with Freddie Andersen and I expect them to be patient as long as Antti Raanta is still holding things together. When he’s ready to return, I would expect Kochetkov to come back, but I think the Wolves will stick with Lyon regardless.


Special Teams

Milwaukee gave the Moose 17 power-play opportunities, and their penalty killing, which was ninth-worst in the AHL in the regular season, came in at a dismal 70.6% success rate. Chicago’s power play clicked at a lethal 26.7% success rate against Rockford; the Admirals can’t afford to take those chances. The key to stopping that power play (courtesy of Sarah from Canes Country):

Clear players out of the front of the crease. Stefan Noesen in particular will camp out right in front of your goaltender and do significant scoring damage from there. For as great of a shot he has, he’s also not afraid to get into the blue paint and shovel pucks in by brute force. A lot of Wolves power play goals have come from up close, so if you force them to the perimeter or take away their chances for rebounds or redirects, you’ll reduce a lot of the damage they can do.

Additionally, Milwaukee will need its power-play units to rebound. The same team that led the division in power-play success in the regular season (23.6%) dropped to an 18.8% success rate against Manitoba. The Admirals’ man-advantage is at its best when the team is moving the puck laterally and Novak and Grimaldi can guide the puck to the slot from the half-wall as shown above. When teams disrupt their zone entries, Donovan and Davies start to throw useless shots at the net, and the power-play generates next to nothing.


X-Factors

If Milwaukee is to move on to the conference finals, there are three key factors that will get them there:

  1. Connor Ingram
  2. Special Teams
  3. Depth Scoring

The first one goes without saying; Ingram can out-duel Lyon and steal this series for the Admirals, but he’ll need help in front of him regardless. On special teams, Milwaukee has to stay out of the penalty box. I know there is a tendency to slow down the game and goad your faster opponent into penalties (like Nashville miserably failed to do against Colorado), but that will be a recipe for disaster for the Admirals. They can’t give Chicago more of an offensive advantage as they did against Manitoba. Finally, whichever team’s depth scoring shines brightest could prove to be the winner. Milwaukee has three legitimately good scoring lines and a few blueliners who can regularly impact the scoresheet, and Sarah identified depth scoring as the Wolves’ biggest weakness:

While they occasionally get scoring contributions from their bottom six, scoring is still very top heavy. If you shut down their top six (Poturalski, Noesen, Smith, Leivo, Gust, Drury), the offense is going to have to revolve a lot more on younger, less experienced, and less consistent players. The Wolves do have an embarrassment of riches in that they can reconfigure that top six to spread the players out throughout the lineup, but...If that top six collectively goes cold or gets shut out by the opposition, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to score their way out of any problems they encounter.

The Admirals showed flashes against Chicago this season, but that may not be enough to overcome this machine of a Calder Cup contender. If Milwaukee can push this series to four or five games, that’s definitely something to hang your hat on in such an inconsistent season.


All statistics are courtesy of theAHL.com, eliteprospects.com, or manually tracked.