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Rookies Leading Admirals Turnaround

by Thomas Willis / Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators 5-1 win on Tuesday gave the club four-straight wins, something their American Hockey League affiliate had accomplished three days prior.

Led by forward Austin Watson’s 15 goals, the Milwaukee Admirals turned the corner in the beginning portions of 2015 and with five-consecutive wins over Hamilton (twice), Rockford (twice) and Charlotte, the club is back in the playoff hunt. The Ads halted an 0-2-2 stretch with their series of wins that started Jan. 3.

“I think it’s been a matter of the learning process that young people and players in the AHL go through,” Admirals Head Coach Dean Evason said of the team’s turnaround. “Our guys are starting to play the right way and figure things out. They’re understanding how our hockey club needs to play to have success. So I think the maturity level of not just our young guys, but are entire group, has helped turn [things around].”

“I think it was about realizing that we needed to get back to a simple brand of hockey,” Watson said. “We lost ourselves for a few games there, but when we focused on the basics again, it helped turn things around. We’ve got a good little stretch going here, so hopefully we can build on it.”

Contributions from several rookie forwards on the team and solid play from both Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg in net have also aided the squad’s climb to fifth place in the AHL’s Western Conference.

“I think as a team we have to try and keep it simple, like we’ve done the last couple games,” Hellberg said. “We went back to the basics and we understand that you don’t have to complicate things to be successful. So if we stick to the simple stuff and work on the details then we can keep going. I think the last few games are something we can build off for sure.”

The Ads put their winning streak on the line Wednesday when they took on the Bulldogs in Hamilton, and Milwaukee emerged with a 3-1 victory. Now it's four more games until the four-day AHL All-Star break.

Aberg’s Smooth Transition:

Youth was the buzzword for the Admirals as they began this season with several first-year players making their transition to Milwaukee and the AHL. Among them were two forwards drafted by Nashville in the second and third rounds of the 2012 NHL Draft.

The draft picks, 20-year-old Brendan Leipsic and 21-year-old Pontus Aberg, came to the Admirals via the Western Hockey League and the Swedish Hockey League, respectively.

Adjusting to a smaller-sized ice rink and the more physical style of the AHL was particularly challenging for Aberg, but the forward had a headstart as a youngster.

“I spent some time with the [Swedish] national team and it helped me play some games on the smaller ice rink,” Aberg said. “I also played on a smaller rink during the summers when I was younger. I think my fast style of game has helped too. It’s not been an easy [transition] I can’t say that, but overall it’s been good.”

Aberg leads all AHL rookies in goals with 14, while Leipsic paces the Ads with 23 assists. To say the pair have acclimated and produced points quickly in their rookie campaigns feels like an understatement.

“It’s amazing what they’ve done,” Watson said. “For them to come in here at around 20 years old and contribute right away is impressive. It’s usually a little bit of an adjustment for guys coming over from juniors or Europe, but [Aberg and Leipsic] have been great.”

“I learned in my three years back home [in Sweden] that points aren’t everything, it’s better to focus helping the team win,” Aberg said. “For now, I’m helping the team by scoring goals, but I don’t want to forget about keeping my work ethic up. I’m going to keep blocking shots and help get the puck out of our zone too.”

Hellberg an All-Star:

Dealing with injuries, last season did not produce the results Hellberg was expecting. A bounce back performance in the 2014-15 campaign has gone much more according to plan, however.

The 6-foot-5 goaltender has guided the Admirals to an 9-4-4 record when he’s been in the crease and his .934 save percentage and 1.72 goals-against average are among the AHL’s leaders.

The goalie credits his drive to improve as the main cause for him turning a corner in his third-year with Milwaukee.

“I never want to be satisfied, and I can always find stuff to improve, but I think this has been a solid bounce back year for me,” Hellberg said. “There’s always stuff to improve, and I always want to get better. I want to push myself and my teammates to never quit on trying to get better. There’s a lot of potential in this locker room.”

Hellberg’s bounce back season continued with his selection as an All-Star earlier this month; the goalie will represent the Admirals in Utica, NY, on Jan. 25 and 26.

“It means a lot,” Hellberg said of the selection. “I’m really excited and of course it’s a big honor to be selected and represent Milwaukee. So I’m looking forward to it for sure, when you look back to how my last year was to get this selection means a lot to me. To bounce back and redeem myself has been big.”

The Swede’s head coach has also seen a change in Hellberg’s game that’s allowed him to bolster the Admirals’ dynamic goaltending duo.

“I think it’s a great feather in the entire organization’s cap,” Evason said of Hellberg’s All-Star selection. “The goaltending coaches, [Predators Goaltending Coach] Ben Vanderklok has done a great job with them and [Predators Goaltending Consultant] Dave Rook has got Hellberg back to a point where he was two years ago. He had some injuries last year that he recovered from. But ultimately it’s a great thing for him and it’s a testament to the work he’s put in to be an All-Star.”

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