The AHL playoffs have been underway for nearly a week with the league’s new best-of-three “play-in” round on display. By finishing the year third in the Central Division, the Milwaukee Admirals secured a bye past that round to the division semifinals where they’ll take on the Manitoba Moose in a best-of-five series beginning tonight.
Just two members of the team remain from the Admirals’ last playoff action in the 2018-19 season (Cole Schneider and Matt Donovan), and they’ll be critical in leading this squad against a Manitoba team that they went 5-5-2 against during the regular season.
Last December—when they were dead last in the AHL—this isn’t exactly where many thought the Admirals would end up, but now they have a shot to make some noise in a division that boasts one of the Calder Cup favorites in the Chicago Wolves. Below, we break down what will be needed to propel Milwaukee forward in the postseason.
Expect the Admirals to start this series with a similar forward group to their final regular-season game against Rockford. That unit will be led by Cody Glass and Tommy Novak down the middle and Cole Schneider and Cole Smith on the wings; Rocco Grimaldi remains out with an injury. Schneider, the lone 30-goal scorer on the roster, was instrumental in turning this team around at the turn of the calendar and will be used heavily to create offensive chances and havoc in front of the net as well as leading the top power-play unit.
Two other key players to watch will be Brayden Burke and Jimmy Huntington; both mid-season acquisitions finished the regular season flanking Cody Glass on the Admirals’ top line. Burke notched 13 points (1g-12a) in 15 games with Milwaukee, but just two of his points were primary ones scored at even-strength. Huntington, on the other hand, scored 22 points, including 12 primary ones scored at even-strength, in 34 games and recorded a primary point on 63.16% of the even-strength goals he was on the ice for. Huntington also developed into one of the Admirals’ best transition players, securing an 81.48% zone-exit success rate and a 75.0% zone-entry success rate.
Further down the lineup, Milwaukee will rely on a third line that likely includes Mitch McLain, Graham Knott, and Egor Afanasyev to provide a punch of depth scoring; McLain, who was fourth among team forwards in shot attempts with 13.37 per 60 minutes, also finished fourth on the team with 17 goals in the regular season.
Don’t expect much tinkering at the bottom of the lineup aside from a potential rotation of Tommy Apap and Grant Mismash, but keep an eye on Juuso Pärssinen—he could make his AHL debut tonight (or soon) after recently being reassigned from the Finnish Liiga.
Manitoba: The Moose utilized a similar scoring-by-committee approach this season, and Milwaukee has demonstrated they can match Manitoba offensively. Their top line will be the unit to watch with Mikey Eyssimont, Morgan Barron, and David Gustafsson, who looks to be healthy heading into game one per Full Press Hockey’s Jacob Stoller.
Jeff Malott, the Moose’s leading goal-scored in the regular season, impressed against the Admirals this year scoring five goals and seven points across the season series.
Milwaukee received a massive boost with the return of Jeremy Davies from Nashville yesterday. That bolsters their blue line to look something like Davies, Marc Del Gaizo, Matt Tennyson, Matt Donovan, Alex Biega, and Josh Healey.
Davies’ importance to this team can’t be overstated. He recorded a 54.75% Corsi rating in ten games I tracked, allowed a team-low 2.70 high-danger shots against per 60 minutes, and gave up just 35.42% controlled zone entries. If Karl Taylor goes with his usual lineup, the pairings will likely be Del Gaizo-Tennyson, Biega-Donovan, and Davies-Healey with David Farrance and Dylan Blujus as the next two on deck.
Biega has done wonders for solidifying the blue line as a good possession-controlling unit, but his size has made him susceptible to faster rush chances, allowing a 56.76% success rate on zone entries. Davies is the obvious offensive catalyst in this unit, and Matt Donovan should continue to be effective on the power play, but Marc Del Gaizo could be an understated storyline; he finished the regular season with a defense-best 17.10 individual shot attempts and 8.92 primary shot assists.
Manitoba: The Moose’s blue line may be just as formidable or more than Milwaukee’s; they finished among the league’s five best teams in limiting shots per game, scoring chances, and expected goals against. Leon Gawanke led the group in regular-season scoring (36) and torched the Admirals for five goals and 12 points this year. He should be paired up with Declan Chisholm to bolster a D-corps led by Jonathan Kovacevic.
The crease is where the Admirals’ postseason will ride or die. In Connor Ingram’s place, Milwaukee will go with Devin Cooley tonight. Cooley struggled in his 24 regular-season appearances, recording an 0.898 save percentage and allowing 2.594 goals below average.
Cooley did pump out a few spectacular performances this year, and he’ll need to be at his best for Milwaukee to win this series. But, who do the Admirals turn to should he falter? Conventional wisdom would say the recently-recalled Tomáš Vomáčka, but per a source, expect Iaroslav Askarov to dress as Cooley’s back-up tonight.
Manitoba: Luckily for the Admirals, Manitoba’s goaltending has been shaky at times this season too. Mikhail Berdin, who finished with a 0.902 save percentage in the regular season, should start in-net tonight.
This series will be a tale of inverted special-teams units. In the regular season, Milwaukee led the division with a 23.6% power-play success rate compared to Manitoba’s 19.5%. In fact, the Admirals’ man-advantage was second-best in the entire AHL behind the Ontario Reign (27.5%). Cashing in on those power-plays will be an easy way for Milwaukee to earn a leg up in this series provided they can stay out of the penalty box.
The Admirals' 79.4% penalty-killing rate was the ninth-worst in the AHL this season, and they led the league in times shorthanded (311) while Manitoba fell down a man just 260 times and finished with an 82.3% penalty-killing rate.
Aside from the previously-noted need for power-play success, staying out of the penalty box, and Devin Cooley at the top of his game, Milwaukee’s three keys to success are:
- Cody Glass
- Fast starts
- Limiting offensive rush chances
Glass has been Milwaukee’s most important piece (aside from Connor Ingram) this season, and the team’s offensive success at even-strength will run through him. He led the Admirals with 62 points in 66 games in the regular season and recorded a primary point on 54.10% of the even-strength goals he was on the ice for. He doesn’t even need to light the lamp so much himself as long as he’s setting up the likes of Huntington, Burke, Schneider, and Smith.
As much as Glass will be responsible for leading the team’s offense, he’ll be needed to set the tone early in games too. Karl Taylor hasn’t been pleased lately with the team’s slower starts, and—as obvious as it is—they won’t succeed while constantly digging themselves out of holes, especially against a stout Manitoba defense.
Finally, beyond Jeremy Davies, Milwaukee will need to hunker down and limit Manitoba’s successful zone entries as best they can. Tennyson, Donovan, Biega, and Healey don’t always have the speed to chase opposing forwards down deep in the zone, so the Admirals will likely rely on a 1-3-1 neutral-zone formation to slow down the Moose and force turnovers around their blue line.
Regardless of the outcome, don’t expect this series to be short or pretty.