American Hockey League

Admirals taking team-first approach

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Nashville Predators made it a priority to supply the Milwaukee Admirals with everything needed for a long Calder Cup Playoff run.

With the Predators missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they restocked their roster in Milwaukee with several Admirals players who had been helping Nashville make a late push for a postseason berth.

And those moves have paid off, as Milwaukee has gotten past Manitoba and Texas to reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2006.

“We’re excited for the challenge,” defenseman Marc Del Gaizo said prior to the start of the best-of-seven series against the Pacific Division playoff champion Coachella Valley Firebirds.

The Nashville-Milwaukee affiliation has been among AHL’s most fruitful through the years. It dates back 1998-99, Nashville’s expansion season, when the Admirals were still based in International Hockey League. For a quarter of a century, wave after wave of Milwaukee-grown talent has graduated to the National Hockey League. The Admirals’ two previous long playoff runs — a Calder Cup championship in 2004 and a return to the Finals in 2006 — were led by the likes of Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Scottie Upshall, Jordin Tootoo, Rich Peverley, Kevin Klein, Sheldon Brookbank, Vern Fiddler and Greg Zanon, all using Milwaukee as a springboard to lengthy NHL tenures in Nashville and elsewhere.

This spring, the Admirals needed the full five games to knock off the Moose and Stars, and while playing those high-pressure games is not ideal, they have served to make the Admirals comfortable with win-or-go-home circumstances.

“I think the build-up to the elimination game is actually more nerve-racking in the game itself,” Luke Evangelista said. “Once you’re out there, it just feels like hockey. It just goes to the back of your mind, the pressure that you’re under, and you just end up playing your game.”

Between the players returning from Nashville, late-season trade acquisitions like forwards Anthony Angello, Isaac Ratcliffe and Austin Rueschhoff, and the arrival of 2022 first-round draft pick Joakim Kemell from Finland, head coach Karl Taylor has had a deep base of talent over the last two months.

The reinforcements came ready to go and prepared to work.

“I think it was great,” Egor Afanasyev said of returning to Milwaukee from Nashville, “because you get experience playing in the best league in the world. And you get some confidence coming back. You’re just playing more of the right way and more of a mature game.”

Of course Taylor was also left with difficult roster decisions to manage, and a number of contributors found themselves out of the lineup when the team started the postseason. But even with all of those moving pieces, Milwaukee has developed a consistent identity as the playoffs have moved along.

“One key was to stick to the plan every game,” Afanasyev said. “It’s tough, but I think that was the key.”

Best of all for the Predators, some of their top prospects are making substantial contributions in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Evangelista, a 21-year-old who was a second-round draft pick in 2020, leads Milwaukee in playoff scoring with 13 points in 11 games after churning out 15 points in 24 contests with the Predators. Kemell, who made a strong impression over the final weeks of the regular season, has taken advantage of his opportunities and has delivered six goals (including two in Game 5 vs. Texas) and an assist in nine playoff games.

But the Admirals want more. The team is eight wins away from its first title in 19 years.

“[We’re] not satisfied,” Afanasyev said. “We’re all here playing for the same goal — to win the Cup. We have a very good team but sometimes just having a great team is not enough. You need every guy on the same page and sticking to the plan and fighting for the same goal.”

This spring could bode well for the future in Nashville. The Admirals have had to adapt, adjust and grow comfortable with both pressure and ever-changing challenges.

“I think when you have three elimination games… you see true colors and you see guys rise to the occasion under those circumstances,” Taylor said. “First round, we played Manitoba, a big, heavy team that was very physical, and then we played Texas, which was a rush team. A much different animal. Every series is different. You’ve got to win them all in different ways.

“I think our group has adapted to that. I think they’ve also found ways to grow individually, but the real joy in this situation is watching the team go through adversity… and you see them get tighter and tighter.”

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