“It feels good to be in the playoffs once again and we are all excited to get it going,” Admirals captain Scott Ford said of his team, which is tied with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the AHL’s longest active playoff streak. “For me it’s been a good run in this city being a part of successful teams.”
Despite Milwaukee’s lofty preseason expectations, the Calder Cup playoffs were hardly a forgone conclusion, especially as the calendar changed over to 2014.
For the third consecutive season the New Year saw the Admirals take on water. Milwaukee endured a 7-11-6 stretch from Jan. 3 through Feb. 26, culminating in a 5-1 rout on home ice at the hands of defending Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids. It was the team’s fifth consecutive defeat, marking Milwaukee’s longest losing streak of the season.
Two nights later a unique moment in franchise history triggered the season’s turning point. The top-ranked Admiral of all time, and current Nashville Predators star Pekka Rinne rejoined Milwaukee for a brief conditioning stint. Rinne’s teammates left an impression on the Finnish backstop by burying nine goals in a 9-1 trouncing of Iowa.
“Clearly it was a combination of how we had played in the last game, plus Pekka being here, that really energized our group,” Admirals coach Dean Evason said after the game. “We had a great crowd, had a lot of energy and played with a lot of passion. It was what our hockey club needed.”
Rinne’s presence sparked Milwaukee, which then picked up a 2-1 overtime win over a Rochester team they were chasing at the time. After the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist returned to Nashville, Milwaukee thrashed rival Rockford 8-3 and 6-2 on consecutive nights.
Bolstered by the four-game winning streak, the Admirals closed the season on a 16-5-1 tear, reminiscent of how Milwaukee closed the previous two campaigns (30 points in their last 20 games in 2013; 23 points in their last 16 games in 2012).
“Our record down the stretch speaks for itself,” Ford said. “By winning a lot of games in bunches we put ourselves in a good position and in a good spot for the playoffs.”
The Admirals officially punched their 2014 playoff ticket with a 3-0 blanking of the Iowa Wild on April 13, the squad’s fourth straight victory in regulation. More importantly the win allowed Milwaukee some coveted breathing room in the season’s final days – a luxury the Admirals did not have the previous two seasons.
“The (stretch) run has been good for us,” defenseman Joonas Jarvinen said. “There are always ups and downs in a season, but it’s the right time to (have) everything in place to get ready for the playoffs.”
Several Milwaukee skaters made impressive development strides this season, led by the team’s leading scorer, rookie Miikka Salomaki (50 points) and fellow first-year forward Colton Sissons, who led Milwaukee with 25 goals in 62 games. Sissons, plus forwards Calle Jarnkrok, Taylor Beck, Filip Forsberg, Simon Moser and Mark Van Guilder, all saw action up with Nashville this year.
“Milwaukee, our farm club that we are so proud of, has made the playoffs again,” Predators General Manager David Poile told reporters after Nashville’s season concluded. “A couple of names like Filip Forsberg, Austin Watson, Taylor Beck and Miikka Salomaki have all had good years down there.”
Defenseman Joe Piskula and goaltenders Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg also saw time in the Music City. At a minimum, Evason will have Mazanec (18-10-3, 2.44 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) and fellow AHL rookie standout Scott Darling (13-6-2, 2.00 goals-against average, .933 save percentage) as terrific options in goal to start the postseason.
“It’s certainly nice to have those options,” Evason said. “I think a lot of teams are battling to find one guy who can play. It’s a nice luxury to have.”
In Toronto, Milwaukee faces a tall order in the best-of-five first round of the playoffs. The Marlies earned their third consecutive North Division crown after a terrific 45-25-2-5 season. Toronto also ranked as the toughest team in the Western Conference, racking up 1,644 minutes in penalties.
“We faced off well with them this year, going 2-0,” Beck said of Toronto, which Milwaukee swept with a 3-2 home win on Jan. 21 and a 5-1 road demolition on March 22. “They have some big tough guys that play hard, but they also have a lot of skill up front.”
The Marlies’ catalyst is defenseman T.J. Brennan, who recently received the AHL’s Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top blueliner. The 25-year-old had a historic campaign, piling up 25 goals and 72 points, both team highs, to go along with a bruising 115 penalty minutes.
“I think it’s just finishing (checks) on Brennan when we get the chance,” Beck said of his team’s plan to slow down Toronto’s most potent weapon. “He can make some nice moves, especially coming out of his own zone, so it’s all about taking away his time and space.”
With both parent clubs, Nashville and Toronto missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, both AHL coaches will have their full arsenals at their disposal. Marlies playmaker Spencer Abbott is always a threat (a team-leading 52 assists), as is rookie sniper Josh Leivo. Meanwhile, forwards Trevor Smith, Jerry D’Amigo, Peter Holland and David Broll all saw significant time in the NHL this year with the Maple Leafs.
“(Toronto) is just a well-rounded group,” Ford said of the 2012 Calder Cup Finalists. “They’ve got some skilled guys up front that can really scoot, and possess some offensive touch, and they have some guys on the backend, like Brennan, that are very talented offensively and can get lost out there. That is mixed with a lot of grittier veteran guys.”
Checking center Jerred Smithson, who spent eight seasons in the Predators organization including parts of two with Milwaukee, is always a force, as is netminder Drew MacIntyre (29-15-3, 2.53 goals-against average, .917 save percentage). The 30-year-old veteran, who played in 55 contests with the Admirals back in 2008-09, has six games of NHL experience with Vancouver, Buffalo and Toronto.
“Smithson is a guy that provides a lot of leadership and provides a good pivot down the center for them,” Ford said. “He’s been around for a long time and played in the National Hockey League in our organization. Then they have a goaltender in Drew MacIntyre, who I played with here. Drew’s a guy that battles every single night.”
Despite the perilous path in front of them, expectations are running high for six-seeded Milwaukee. The Admirals, who have endured frustrating first-round exits the previous two seasons, are gearing up for a deep run this spring.
“I think (those disappointments) makes us want it even more,” Beck said. “I think we have the best team that we’ve had in the past three years that I’ve been here. Everyone can contribute for us and that’s so dangerous when it comes to playoff hockey. We can definitely make a run here.”
The task ahead will be a formidable one, especially with all eyes in hockey’s de facto capital staring at the AHL’s Marlies. Toronto’s fans should provide a raucous environment for the final three games of the series back in the Canada’s largest city, where Milwaukee will have to win at least one game to advance.
“They just have a real pro atmosphere over there in Toronto,” Ford said. “They get treated extremely well and they have a swagger about them. I think they’ve proven that this year with how many wins they have and how well they’ve played. They are going to be a tough test.”
The examination begins Friday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.