Milwaukee brewing up Calder Cup dreams

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    If a West Division championship and a league-best 102 points in the regular season weren’t enough to validate the 2003-04 Milwaukee Admirals, maybe a six-game triumph over the Chicago Wolves did the trick.

    But the Admirals won’t rest on their laurels. They know they’re still eight wins shy of their ultimate goal: a Calder Cup championship.

    Milwaukee won 46 games during the 2003-04 regular season. In a year that will go down in history for its standout defensive teams, the Admirals scored a league-best 269 goals and sailed to the franchise’s first division title since 1996.

    After a seven-game scare in the division semifinals, in which Milwaukee trailed 3-2 before rallying to knock off Cincinnati, the Admirals faced off against the arch-rival Wolves, a perennial championship favorite looking for their fourth league crown in seven years.

    Milwaukee prevailed, thanks to Mathieu Darche’s goal in double overtime of Game 6, and advanced to the Western Conference final against Rochester, another opponent with loads of talent and the aura of history on its side.

    They’re a minor-league team in a big-league town, a city that includes the NBA’s Bucks and MLB’s Brewers, nestled in the heart of Green Bay Packers country.

    But the Admirals have a significant history, too, one that AHL fans may not know about.

    Milwaukee began play in the International Hockey League in 1977, nearly a quarter of a century before joining the AHL in 2001, and has qualified for the postseason in 24 of its 27 years of operation, but is still looking for its first championship.

    [The Admirals were actually Milwaukee’s fourth IHL franchise, following the Clarks (1948-49), the Chiefs (1952-54) and the Falcons (1959-61).]

    Executive VP and general manager Phil Wittliff has been synonymous with the Milwaukee Admirals since 1972, when the team was a member of the old United States Hockey League. Over the past three decades, Wittliff has been a player and a head coach, and worked his way up through the front office as well.

    Wittliff was behind the bench when the Admirals made their only IHL championship series appearance in 1983, a loss to a Toledo club that, ironically enough, featured current Milwaukee bench boss Claude Noel.

    This postseason, 16 different Admirals have scored a goal through 13 games, led by second-year pro Darren Haydar and 17-year veteran Tony Hrkac with six apiece. Simon Gamache, Libor Livko, Wyatt Smith, Mathieu Darche and AHL All-Rookie forward Timofei Shishkanov also give Milwaukee’s offense a jolt up front.

    Andrew Hutchinson and Greg Zanon join vets Curtis Murphy, Brad Tiley, Kirill Safronov and Ray Schultz in providing stellar two-play from the blue line. Murphy and Safronov are former Calder Cup champions, while Schultz reached the Finals with Bridgeport in 2002.

    Wade Flaherty has shouldered the Admirals’ load in net this postseason, with an 8-4 record, while former first-round draft pick Brian Finley is ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

    “We still have a long way to go,” Mathieu Darche told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after knocking off Chicago. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

    The work resumes Tuesday night at the Bradley Center.