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Resilient Milwaukee back in playoffs

by Jason Karnosky || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Milwaukee Admirals know what it feels like to be counted out.

For a stretch of nearly two and a half months — Jan. 28 through Apr. 8 — Milwaukee sat on the outside of the AHL playoffs, staring up at its rival Western Conference contenders.

However, the resilient Admirals never quit, clawing their way to 23 out of a possible 32 points to close the season and return to the Calder Cup Playoffs for the league-best 10th straight season.

“We really came together and the made the decision that we needed to go on a run,” Milwaukee forward Chris Mueller said. “Obviously, we wanted to play like this the entire season but for whatever reason the chemistry just wasn’t clicking.”

Things looked bleak for Milwaukee during the month of January, when the Admirals managed just three wins. At the end of the month Milwaukee endured its largest sinkhole of the season, dropping five straight regulation contests.

Milwaukee’s nail in the coffin appeared to arrive courtesy of their nemesis Rockford during a home-and-home series over the weekend of Mar. 10-11. On back-to-back nights the IceHogs delivered crushing 4-1 and 3-2 sideswipes to the Admirals’ ship.

“We had some frustrating times there in January and early February when we played our way out of a playoff spot,” Milwaukee defenseman Scott Ford said. “At that point we were reeling and searching for anything that represented a sign of life.”

But instead of wilting, Milwaukee started the turnaround in their next game, overcoming a two-goal third-period hole at Lake Erie to steal the game 5-4 in overtime. During the season’s stretch run, time and time again the Admirals utilized third period heroics to comeback for at least a point, or steal an outright win.

“That just shows the work ethic, the character and the never quit attitude for the guys in our dressing room,” Milwaukee coach Ian Herbers said. “If we had to make an adjustment, that was fine, but our guys kept battling and competing. When you keep doing that you get a bounce here or there that allows you to tie things up.”

The Admirals’ impressive run of comebacks included team’s defining moment of the season, which occurred during an Apr. 1 showdown with Rockford.

Trailing 1-0 against the IceHogs, Admirals forward Michael Latta and Rockford defenseman Shawn Lalonde engaged in a spirited bout at 10:08 of the second period. During the ensuing television timeout, a tussle between IceHogs forward Rob Flick and Admirals goaltender Jeremy Smith cleared both benches and penalty boxes. By the end of the night 186 minutes of infractions were assessed to both teams.

“The brawl against Rockford was major turning point for us because it really brought our team closer together,” Ford said. “We stopped worrying about things we could not control and instead started being there for one another.”

Thanks to a third-period goal by Mark Van Guilder, Milwaukee managed to pick up a point in the game before falling to the IceHogs 2-1 in a shootout.

“The Rockford game and incident is not the way we want to play,” Mueller said. “But it brought us together on the ice and ever since then we really started putting wins together.”

The Admirals closed the season on a 6-1-0-1 tear. The mark was especially impressive considering seven of the team’s last eight games came on the road.

“The way the league is setup, we got to play the teams we needed to beat in order to get into the playoffs,” Mueller said. “And that is exactly what we did by going down to Charlotte and Texas and taking care of business against the teams ahead of us in the standings.”

However, Milwaukee did not clinch its playoff ticket until the final day of the 2011-12 campaign. Tied with Midwest Division rival Charlotte going into the contest, the Admirals routed the Checkers 6-1 to earn the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, which lost three times in regulation to Milwaukee during the season’s final two weeks, missed out on a postseason berth by a single point.

“In that final game we knew we needed at least a point,” said Ford of the clinching victory, which locked up the franchise’s AHL-record ninth straight 40-win season. “Getting the win meant we didn’t have to go back into the locker room and hope for help from other teams.”

Now the Admirals (40-29-2-5, 87 points) hope their end of the season momentum carries over into the first round of the playoffs against fourth-seeded Abbotsford (42-26-3-5, 92 points).

“We were playing well for quite a while prior to (the run), but at the end of the year we found ways to win a lot of games,” Herbers said. “We played playoff hockey for the last months of the season and did everything we could to come out with two points in every game.”

Unlike the previous year when Milwaukee entered the playoffs as the top seeded team in the Western Conference, the Admirals aren’t ranked amongst the Calder Cup favorites this time around after reaching the postseason on the season’s final day.

However, Milwaukee’s captain believes it would be wise not to underestimate the Admirals’ playoff potential.

“We’re stingy defensively, have some toughness when we need it and play a relentless hockey,” Ford said. “I don’t know if we are flying under the radar, but I know other teams don’t want to play against us because they don’t like our style of play.”

Milwaukee certainly has plenty of positive going to into their first-round series. The Admirals owned the season’s matchups against the Heat, taking seven of a possible eight points. Milwaukee also registered their largest offensive output of the season against Abbotsford in an 8-3 win on Nov. 29. The victory gave Ian Herbers a win in his AHL head coaching debut.

“We did have success this year against Abbotford,” Mueller said. “That should make us confident, but playoffs are a whole new season.”

The only major issue standing in Milwaukee’s way is the fact that Abbotsford is one of only two teams that enters the postseason hotter than the Admirals, having won their past seven games and earning points in nine straight contests.

“They have a big and physical team, a couple of defenseman who are skilled and who really control the puck, and solid goaltending as well,” said Ford describing the Heat. “We are going to have to shut down (Abbotsford leading scorer) Krys Kolanos’ line.”

But the Admirals know that anything can happen in the postseason, especially in short five-game series.

“It’s a five-game series with tough travel for both teams in the middle, but we just have to find a way to get three wins,” Mueller said. “We’re confident we can do that, but it’s going to be good series.”