For the first time since 2006, the Milwaukee Admirals are heading to the Western Conference Final after knocking off the Texas Stars 5-2 in Game 5 of the Central Division Final on Sunday night.
This is the first time since 1997 that no AHL regular-season division champion will play in either conference final series.
“I thought we played great,” Ads head coach Karl Taylor said. “I thought we handled the Stars’ first goal well then even in the third period. Gutsy effort from the whole group as guys were battling blocking shots and guys stepping up in key moments.”
Taylor is now 7-2 overall in elimination games during his time in Milwaukee.
The Admirals will now take on the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the AHL affiliate of the Seattle Kraken. Game 1 is set for Thursday at 9 p.m. in Palm Springs, California.
The Milwaukee onslaught picked up in the opening frame as defenseman Marc Del Gaizo scored his third of the playoffs two minutes later, floating a shot on net from the blue line followed 28 seconds later by Nashville Predators 2022 first-round pick Joakim Kemell, who beat Murray for his fourth goal of the playoffs — a howitzer from the left circle.
Kemell was not finished, later tipping in a shot from Del Gaizo with 58 seconds to play in the period to give the Admirals a 4-0 lead going into the intermission — their highest-scoring period in the postseason.
4-0 thanks to the KING 👑 pic.twitter.com/dqDsk01JvT
— x – Milwaukee Admirals (@mkeadmirals) May 22, 2023
Kemell only trails Coachella Valley Firebird forward Max McCormick (4) in power-play goals in the playoffs after scoring the fourth goal of the first period.
“He can shoot it; obviously he has a great shot,” Taylor said of Kemell. “Nice to get off the schneid on the power play and also keep the scoring going moving forward.”
Murray was pulled at the second period and replaced by goaltender Remi Poirer, who made a mere five saves in his first appearance in a game since April 16.
Milwaukee’s lack of offense led to some early chances for Texas. Forward Riley Damiani ripped a wrister home above goaltender Yaroslav Askarov‘s glove at 1:48 to break the silence at home in the second period and pull the Stars to within 4-1.
Askarov only saw nine shots in the first before the Stars peppered him with 16 in the second. The Admirals were held to five shots in the period after tallying 14 in the first. He ended his night with 37 saves on 39 shots. It was the eighth time in 10 postseason games he allowed three or fewer goals.
“Yeah, that was his best game in the postseason,” Taylor said of Askarov. “What a moment for him in Game 5 in an elimination game. The young man played really well today and he should be really proud of the effort and proud of the situation moving forward.”
Kemell drew two penalties in the third period as forwards Nicholas Caamano was called for tripping and Alex Petrovic was called for high-sticking the young Finnish forward.
However, right after the first penalty was killed off, Askarov came out of the net to try and make a play on the puck during the power play. Caamano broke free, danced around the Russian goalie and easily snapped a goal in to cut the deficit to 4-2. It was Caamano’s fourth goal of the playoffs and his first short-handed goal.
Askarov lost his glove and stick on the play and was not handed a penalty for tossing his stick out to try and prevent the goal.
“You always want to have composure on the bench,” Taylor said after the Stars’ second goal. “The team will feel how you’re feeling and it’s difficult at times but you can’t do what you want to do and be yelling and screaming. You have to make sure you give them trust.
“You’re also helping them understand the moment but also understand they have time to make plays. As a group, it was a great effort and this is a big moment for the team, but we’re only halfway there. We have two more rounds to go hopefully. We’ll have to dig in and look at Palm Springs and get prepared for that series.”
Milwaukee added an empty netter with 28 seconds left to seal the win, courtesy of forward Egor Afanasyev — his second goal and sixth point of the postseason.
The Admirals now have three days to prepare for Coachella Valley, which holds the home-ice advantage in the Western Conference Final. The opening two games will be in Coachella Valley before shifting back to Milwaukee for games 3 through 5. The final two games, if necessary, will be back in Coachella Valley.