Cooley responds to give Admirals lift

📝 by Patrick Williams

The word came from goaltending coach Dave Rook on the long trip back home from California on Sunday.

“You’re in tomorrow night.”

Devin Cooley was getting the call for Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. Against the loaded Coachella Valley Firebirds. And down two games to none.

Lose Game 3 and still have a chance in the series? Well, no one ever really wants to touch that one.

Rookie Yaroslav Askarov had taken the Admirals through two demanding rounds, series against Manitoba and Texas that both went the distance. Opening the conference finals in Palm Desert, Milwaukee stumbled twice. The first defeat stung in particular — the Admirals built a 3-2 lead early in the third period only to see the Firebirds reel off four straight goals to take an eventual 6-4 win. Game 2 had an ominous start, as Askarov mishandled a puck that led to a Firebirds goal 61 seconds into the contest, and Coachella Valley went on to a 5-3 victory.

Much more than anything to do with Askarov, though, the Admirals just needed a change. A curveball to send the Firebirds’ way. A message to their own dressing room. And so the Milwaukee coaching staff decided to turn to Cooley as the team flew home following nearly two weeks on the road.

Rook passed on the word to Cooley.

And Cooley was ready. Or at least as ready as any goaltender could be after not playing in 45 days. When the third-year pro led the Admirals onto the ice for Game 3 on Monday, it was his first action of any kind since April 14.

He delivered a 28-save performance to backstop the Admirals to a 3-1 win. Milwaukee was back in the series.

“I thought we played unreal as a team,” Cooley said Wednesday as the Admirals reconvened following a day away from the rink.

Head coach Karl Taylor’s faith had backing to it. Last postseason, Cooley shined for the Admirals, shutting down Manitoba with 83 saves on 86 shots over the first two games of their division semifinal series. In the next round, he made 47 saves in an elimination game against the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves.

And Cooley was dependable this season as well. While Askarov took on an intense workload with 48 appearances, Cooley contributed a 15-8-2 record in 26 games to go with a 2.93 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.

But there is inherent risk in turning to a goaltender who has not played in more than six weeks. A team like Coachella Valley can pick apart the best netminders, and those opening two losses had left the Admirals with minimum time to find their collective game — as well as Cooley’s.

But they did.

“Even though I haven’t been playing, I’ve been preparing like I have been,” Cooley said. “After the first few saves, you feel really good, and it comes back pretty quickly.”

Still, practice can only replicate the flow, pace, redirects, and net-front traffic so much. Cooley’s teammates helped to ease his transition back to game competition, especially in the first period on Monday.

“A lot of stuff was coming from the outside, and I was able to see everything and get into a rhythm pretty quickly,” said Cooley, who stopped all 10 shots he faced in the opening frame of Game 3.

“There’s no secret sauce or easy way to do it. I think it’s just giving a 100-percent effort whenever you can, especially the skates with the other guys who aren’t playing. Just treat it like a practice, and treat every shot like a game shot, and it can’t go in. If you have the energy and the intensity, it translates to the game pretty easily.

“Once you get past a little bit of nerves, it’s all routine.”

Goalies can have a special bond, something that Cooley and Askarov have built together this season.

“He’s probably one of my closest friends on the team,” Cooley said of his partner. “He’s been great for me. He’s been extremely supportive, and when he was playing I would say I was definitely his biggest supporter, too.

“It’s not our decision who plays. He’s just excited that I was able to get a win, and every time he was doing well I was very excited for him.”