For the first time in 18 years, the Milwaukee Admirals are in the Western Conference Final of the American Hockey League Playoffs.
Awaiting the Admirals is the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the AHL affiliate of the Seattle Kraken and the highest-scoring team in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Led by head coach Dan Bylsma, the Firebirds boast five of the top 10 scorers in the postseason — Kole Lind (7 goals, 17 points), Max McCormick (7 goals, 15 points), Ryker Evans (2 goals, 13 points), Cameron Hughes (13 points) and Jeremy McKenna (6 goals, 11 points).
While the Admirals don’t have the scoring punch Coachella Valley does, they do have two players in the top 10 in scoring including forward Luke Evangelista (4 goals, 13 points) and defenseman Jordan Gross (2 goals, 11 points). Evangelista has scored in six of Milwaukee’s 10 playoff games, including three multi-point outings.
“For me personally, no, not too much,” Evangelista said regarding whether the playoff setting was too big for him. “It’s just hockey at the end of the day, so not too nervous or anything. I just want to have fun with the whole situation.”
In fact, the hyper-competitive postseason atmosphere has brought the Admirals together even more having won two playoff rounds, both going to a deciding Game 5.
“When you get in dog fights like we are now, you get into those high-pressure situations like elimination games, all those sorts of things, it just brings the group closer together,” Evangelista said. “You can see that out on the ice. The camaraderie we have as a squad — at the end of the day we’re playing for each other, that’s why we want to win.”
After playing 24 games with the Nashville Predators, Evangelista (along with six other skaters on the Ads roster) went from chasing the NHL postseason to jumping right into the AHL’s. Now, Evangelista is drawing on that experience to get him through the grueling Calder Cup Playoffs.
“Playing in these long playoff rounds, the pressure is higher,” Evangelista said. “Like I said about the elimination games before, you learn a lot from in those situations, and the fact we’ve been able to come out on top in all of them so far is great and a huge learning curve. Just building off those high-pressure situations, it’ll be good for my development.”
The Admirals have played in — and survived — two elimination games so far this postseason, a nice feather in the cap of Karl Taylor, who’s now 7-2 in elimination games as Milwaukee’s head coach.
The challenge for Taylor and company now is preparing for and playing a team they’ve only seen on tape.
“I think there’s going to be two moving trains crashing into each other,” Taylor said. “Both team’s coaches are grinding video and making the players aware of the different strengths and weaknesses of each team. I think you’re going to see teams going after each other early and probably it being pretty chaotic in the first 10 minutes.”
The Firebirds have skill at and scoring pop at both sides on the wing; Lind on the right, McCormick on the left. The duo have combined for seven of Coachella Valley’s 11 power-play goals.
With an offensively dangerous team like the Firebirds, the Admirals will be leaning heavily on goaltender Yaroslav Askarov. He has a 6-4 record in the postseason, boasting a 2.44 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He’s allowed three goals or fewer in eight of Milwaukee’s 10 playoff games.
“They have four very balanced lines; there’s not really a line you can pinpoint,” Taylor said. “For us, we want to see us do what we do well (but) more consistently. We want to support the goaltender and allow him to see pucks, and they’re going to do everything they can to make it difficult on our goalie.”
In addition to Askarov’s contributions, Milwaukee has a strong defensive group that’s logged a lot of time playing together this season. One of those blue liners who’s gone unnoticed but Predator fans should get acquainted with is defenseman Marc Del Gaizo. He’s tallied three goals and eight points in 10 games, including three multi-point games.
“I’m focused on getting the puck to the net and getting it through that first guy,” Del Gaizo said. “Getting it there and if it goes in, it goes in. There are second and third opportunities for our forwards who do a good job getting to the net. We have a big group of forwards that are good at tipping and finding space down there. I guess for me, just trying to get the puck to the net every opportunity.”
Taylor highlighted how good the Firebirds are on the rush, stating they like to attack and “turn and burn,” much like the Kraken did so effectively all season.
Bylsma, who’s been at the helm of a professional team for 18 seasons, has a Stanley Cup on his resume (2009, Pittsburgh Penguins). Taylor knows he’ll have the Firebirds ready to go.
“Definitely respect where he’s been and what he’s done,” Taylor said. “For us, Dan would have the same answer. Coaches don’t win hockey games we guide, we steer, and both coaches will make adjustments. Not having played these guys, I’ve done my research and talked to people I trust.”
Puck drop for Game 1 of the Western Conference Final at Acrisure Arena is set for 9 p.m. CT on Thursday night.