Evangelista making most of return to Milwaukee

📝 by Patrick Williams

Don’t just go back to the AHL. Dominate.

Plenty of players hear those words when they return to continue their development in the American Hockey League.

Milwaukee rookie Luke Evangelista has done exactly that so far in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Returning to the Admirals after a 24-game run in the National Hockey League with the Nashville Predators, the 21-year-old Evangelista has made his playoff run count so far. He has eight points (three goals, five assists) through seven games, tying him for the team lead this postseason.

“My time in Nashville was huge,” Evangelista said. “I’m still learning as I go… taking what I learned at the NHL level and trying to implement it in my game.

“Just getting a little taste in Nashville was huge for my development.”

Milwaukee outlasted Manitoba in the teams’ Central Division semifinal series and is now locked in a fight with Texas in the division finals, tied at one win apiece. Evangelista has helped to key a potent Admirals power play that has gone 8-for-24 (33.3 percent) in the postseason; he had a goal and an assist on the man advantage to help Milwaukee to a 2-1 win over the Stars in Game 1 on Friday.

After selecting Evangelista in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft, Nashville had high hopes for the Toronto native as he began his first full pro season with Milwaukee last fall. In keeping with the time-tested organizational philosophy of giving prospects plenty of time in the AHL, Evangelista spent the first four months of the season firmly in the AHL. In 49 games with Milwaukee, he produced 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists) and represented the Admirals at the AHL All-Star Classic before the Predators put in a call for him in late February for his NHL debut.

A playmaking forward, Evangelista quickly took to the NHL game, picking up an assist in his second game and notching his first two NHL goals in a game at Vancouver on March 6. And with the Predators fighting for a playoff spot, Evangelista earned trust from the Nashville coaching staff and played a key role after the trades of Tanner Jeannot and Nino Niederreiter, dressing in all but one of the team’s final 25 games, averaging 16:34 of ice time per contest, and contributing 15 points (seven goals, eight assists).

“As soon as I got the call to Nashville, all the games were meaningful, important games,” Evangelista stressed. “We were right in the middle of the playoff hunt. We were playing good teams down the stretch. Every game mattered.”

When Nashville’s season ended short of a playoff berth, Evangelista was part of a haul of players who returned to Milwaukee to take part in the AHL postseason. The organization has expectations for a strong Calder Cup Playoff run, and the Admirals have delivered so far. They fought off elimination twice against Manitoba, including a Game 5 win that saw Milwaukee get the winning goal with 26.8 seconds left after the Moose had scored late to seemingly force overtime.

“It was really tight all the way to the end,” Evangelista said of the division semifinal against the Moose. “We’re proud of how we handled all that adversity going down in the series and then in Game 5 them tying it up. Just the way we handled all that and persevered through, I think showed the resilience of the group.”

Texas has seen that same dogged approach by the Admirals. Evangelista’s goal erased an early Texas lead in Game 1, and the Admirals scored twice late in the third period to tie Game 2 before the Stars prevailed. Between his time in Nashville and this back-and-forth postseason, Evangelista has had to grow comfortable with pressure quickly.

“It’s normal to be a little nervous before those games when so much is on the line, and your season’s at stake,” Evangelista acknowledged. “But honestly for our group, we know what kind of team we have, the talent we have, the locker room we have. We’ve got great leadership, and we really care about each other and love playing for each other.”

While helping the Admirals this postseason, Evangelista is also positioning himself for a full-time role in Nashville as soon as next fall.

“Being able to experience those high-pressure games and those high stakes I think was really helpful, especially coming back to the AHL,” Evangelista said. “We’re in the playoffs now, and there’s even more on the line.”