Eliminate one familiar foe, face a new one. That’s the situation the Chicago Wolves find themselves in, having eliminated the Rockford IceHogs only to have to face the Milwaukee Admirals in the next round.
The teams have a historical rivalry dating back to the Wolves’ first season in 1994, and have met in the playoffs six times. Chicago has won fie of the six playoff matchups, dominating their postseason appearances.
So you’ve got the historical playoff bad blood. You’ve got the frequent regular season meetings — 14 this season. You’ve got the fact that the Wolves and Admirals have traditionally been two of the stronger teams in the division.
Now, add in the fact that eight current Admirals and nine current Wolves shared a roster last season. For a refresher, the Admirals did not play last season due to COVID-19 issues, so a majority of their players found temporary homes with the Wolves, as did their coaching staff. Ryan Warsofsky downplays the fact that there’s so much overlap between the two rosters, but when the puck drops on Saturday night, there are going to be a lot of familiar faces: from Chicago, Cavan Fitzgerald, Joey Keane, Stelio Mattheos, Jamieson Rees, Ryan Suzuki, David Cotton, David Gust, Max Lajoie and Spencer Smallman all shared the ice with Jeremy Davies, Josh Healey, Tommy Novak, Cole Smith. Marc Del Gaizo, Luke Evangelista, Connor Ingram and Devin Cooley from the Admirals.
|Regular Season Record||50-16-5-5||39-28-5-4|
|Head to Head Record||9-4-0-1||5-8-1-0|
|Power Play % (Rank)||19.6% (T-12th)||23.6% (2nd)|
|Penalty Kill % (Rank)||83.2% (5th)||79.4% (23rd)|
|Power Play % (Rank)||26.7% (7th)||18.8% (10th)|
|Penalty Kill % (Rank)||85.7% (T-5th)||70.6% (T-18th)|
To learn more about our northern neighbors, I posed a few questions to Eric D. and Rachel K. of On the Forecheck.
1. Connor Ingram had by far the biggest workload out of all goalies in the AHL (3195 minutes played, over 300 minutes more than his closest competition). How important has he been to the Admirals? Does he have any weaknesses?
Eric: If Milwaukee wants any chance of winning this series, Ingram will have to be at his best. They got two incredible (and surprising) performances from Devin Cooley against the Moose, but he won’t get it done consistently. When Ingram is on, as you know, he’s one of the best goalies in the AHL and clearly ready for NHL backup duties, but he does have nights here and there where it’s clear from the start he’s off his game. Whether it’s mental or technical, I can’t say, but most nights, if the Ads’ blue line does an average job (not a guarantee), Ingram should have success.
Rachel: I‘d point out his blocker side. It’s not his best feature. However, his movement is quick and quite precise. He gets around in the crease with confidence, but can leak out of his blue paint a little more frequently than I’d like simply based on his size: he isn’t huge and can’t rely on sheer height to bail him out.
2. With Nashville’s elimination in the first round, did the Admirals get any reinforcements back from the NHL?
Yes! Cody Glass and Mathieu Olivier came back from Nashville along with Ingram. I don’t think Olivier moves the needle much, but Glass is a huge piece of their success. He led the team in scoring in the regular season and has shown after his first full AHL season that he’s ready to matriculate to the NHL. He gives the Admirals a really good 1-2 punch at center with him and Tommy Novak. When you add Juuso Parssinen and Graham Knott behind them, Milwaukee has really good center depth. He also gives them flexibility in the lineup. They can move Brayden Burke, Jimmy Huntington, and Cole Schneider up and down on the wings as needed to give them three good scoring lines. Additionally, Rocco Grimaldi, who was previously ruled out for the season with an injury, made a surprise return in Game 4 against Manitoba. He’s a huge boost to this lineup at even strength and on the power play. For much of the year, he was turning in MVP-level performances for the Admirals and helps give them a very good top-six.
3. The Admirals finished the season with the #2 power play in the league. What’s made them so successful on the man advantage? And what’s the key to stopping them?
A lot of their success came from Grimaldi, Novak, and Glass. Throw in Cole Schneider or Cole Smith in front of the net plus Matt Donovan and Jeremy Davies on the blue line, and they have some exciting PP units. But their success rate dropped down to 18% against the Moose because Manitoba did a really good job of breaking up zone entries. The downside of Donovan (and sometimes Davies) is that they love throwing pucks at the net from low-danger areas. If Chicago wants to stop the Admirals, they need to force them to move the puck north-south more than east-west and stand them up at the blue line. Their PP really breaks down when they struggle to establish possession in the offensive zone. Then they panic and start throwing long-range shots to the net instead of generating good puck movement. Novak and Grimaldi play on the half-wall and are excellent passers; if they can reach the slot with the puck, that’s where Milwaukee is lethal.
4. What’s one reason the Admirals will win this series? What’s one reason they won’t?
One reason they win is Connor Ingram. I think Milwaukee is going to get outplayed at even-strength no matter what (like they did most of the Moose series), but if Ingram stands on his head, they have a chance. One reason they won’t is penalties. At one point in the regular season, they were the most penalized team in the league. They’ve cleaned it up a bit but gave Manitoba far too many chances (17, I think?) and Heinola and Gawanke burned them. The Wolves are even more dangerous so penalty-filled games will doom them.
Central Division Finals (Best-of-Five) (All times Central)
Game 1 — Saturday, May 21 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.
Game 2 — Sunday, May 22 at Allstate Arena, 3 p.m.
Game 3 — Wednesday, May 25 at Panther Arena, 7 p.m.
Game 4* — Friday, May 27 at Panther Arena, 7 p.m.
Game 5* — Sunday, May 29 at Allstate Arena, 3 p.m.