The Milwaukee Admirals couldn't be stopped.
Forty-one wins. Ninety points. The best record in team history. And then it all came to a screeching halt.
Within a span of 24 hours in mid-March, the sports landscape in North America was put on pause due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic, and the team that sat atop the American Hockey League standings was suddenly wondering what was next.
Yes, there are more important things in life than sticks and pucks, and that was recognized by all those who call themselves members of the primary developmental affiliate of the Nashville Predators.
But that doesn't take away from the disappointment of a playoff run that never happened. The AHL officially canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 season - and postseason, too - leaving the Admirals to wonder what might have been.
"From our perspective, we were very excited about the prospects of moving forward with our group, for obvious reasons," Admirals Head Coach Karl Taylor said Monday via phone. "It's mostly disappointing, to be honest with you. There's nothing we can do about [the cancelation of the season]… [We won't have a postseason], and rightfully so, with everything we're dealing with, but I think in the end, you're disappointed because these teams, they don't happen every day. Obviously, you want to take advantage of it when you're presented with it as a coaching staff and as a player."
Milwaukee's run may not have ended with a parade like many had hoped, but there are still reasons to celebrate what occurred on the western shore of Lake Michigan this season.
The Admirals finished with a 41-14-5-3 record, good for 90 points and the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy awarded to the AHL regular-season champions. Milwaukee also allowed a league-low 2.24 goals per game and ranked seventh in scoring (3.35) - the third-highest goals-per-game differential (+1.11) in the AHL in the last decade.
Those numbers also led to an honor for Taylor: the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's Outstanding Coach for the 2019-20 season.
"With the season ending the way it did, it's an awesome reflection of our team, and personally, it's very humbling to win the award," Taylor said. "But it's a team award, and it's a great reflection of our team. You don't win this Coach of the Year award unless your team has had the season that we had, so it's a real reflection of the dedication of the players and the effort they put forth. I'm very proud of it, because we didn't get a chance to attack a playoff run, so from my perspective, it was just something to show we had a great season as a team."
What led to this record-breaking season for the Ads? There are a multitude of factors that contributed to victory just about every time they stepped onto the ice, but a few stand out.
"It just reflects on the group and what the coaches wanted to implement, what the management team wanted to implement," Taylor said. "[Admirals General Manager] Scott Nichol is a big part of what we do here. We all have a plan for the culture, the environments, what we're trying to create here… Most of those things [from last season] were in place, so we had less movement, less inconsistencies with our roster; I'd say that was a big help.
"But I think in the end, if you watch our team play, you saw a group of players that all felt a part of what we were doing and all felt they could play toward the identity and the culture we want to instill here in Milwaukee. So, I think selling that message, and also having the correct players here that would accept what we're trying to do was the biggest part of it. In the end, it comes down to your veteran leadership and guiding the young guys. We like to give the room to the players, and they obviously grabbed it and did a great job this year."
When the AHL officially canceled the season a few weeks back, there was no locker room cleanout, no in-person goodbyes before everyone went their separate ways for the summer. Instead, Taylor held a video meeting with his team, and his message, he says, didn't differ much from the one he had back in March as the group met in person before departing with an uncertain future.
"When the pause started, my message was very similar - it was just no one's going to take the season away from us," Taylor said. "When we knew that we were finished, the messaging was very similar: no matter what occurs, all we can do is win our next game and we did that to the best of our abilities. The situation is very new to everyone, everyone's trying to deal with it the right way and we'll move forward when we can. Everyone's very disappointed because we all know these opportunities don't come every year."
For a few on the Milwaukee roster, however, the season may not be done just yet. With the NHL announcing their Return To Play Plan last week, the Predators have begun making preparations to be ready if and when the puck drops this summer. That may include adding a number of Admirals to their roster for a postseason run to - at the very least - experience life in the NHL when the games matter most.
"That'll be a great opportunity for whoever gets selected to do that," Taylor said. "And whether they play or not, or whatever occurs, still getting an extended period of opportunity underneath [Predators Head Coach John Hynes's] eyes [will be beneficial]. They can get to know him and what he expects, and he can get to know them, whether it's setting them up for down the road or next season."
That next season will eventually come in Milwaukee too, even though it may not commence in October like usual. No team's roster - at any level - remains exactly the same year to year, and the Admirals will be no different.
This group that seemed unstoppable at times will never be completely together again, and while it may take time before the "what ifs" subside, there is still plenty of hope for the future.
Ultimately, the Admirals are grooming the next full-time members of the Predators. If the recent season in Milwaukee showed anything, the next wave of NHLers are well on their way.
"We're in a good position right now," Taylor said. "The one thing I have learned is that every season is different, and so you do have to restart your culture and your environment - even though it will be similar - but you have to start that over again. Things were rolling on obviously very well here, and we'll have to restart and reset the table whenever that comes, but we're very anxious to go back. Us and a few other teams in the American Hockey League are feeling like they have some unfinished business based on how the season ended. So, we're very focused on continuing what we're doing and moving down the same path and then solidifying ourselves in a playoff run."