Apr 20, 2019

By Tom Witosky

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If two Calder Cup playoff opponents fit the description as having “good team chemistry,” the Iowa Wild and the Milwaukee Admirals are it.

The two teams face-off at 4 p.m. Sunday at Wells Fargo Arena in the first game of a best-of-five series in the Central Division Semifinals of the American Hockey League’s 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. The Wild will be making its first appearance in the six seasons playing in Iowa, while Milwaukee  returns to the playoffs after failing to qualify last season for only the third time since the Admirals joined the AHL for the 2000-01 season.

The difference between an upstart entrant like Iowa and a near-perennial playoff team like Milwaukee fades quickly when considering both have overcome substantial adversity to arrive for this year’s Central Division playoff battle. The winner will take on the victor of the series between the regular-season division champ Chicago Wolves and fourth-place finisher Grand Rapids.

“Who knows what can happen,” Cal O’Reilly, Iowa’s point leader and team captain, said pointing to Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh’s quick exit from the NHL playoffs. “Anything can happen in playoff hockey and it usually does. You just have to learn to play one game at a time.”

O’Reilly, who set a career record of 79 points in 80 games for Milwaukee in 2007-08, said he expects a tough challenge from his old team.

“They are the hottest team in the league right now. They are a hard-working team with a lot of depth,” O’Reilly said. “They have four strong lines and big defensemen. They have really good goaltenders.”

That wasn’t how the season began for the Admirals and it wasn’t until changes were made after lengthy skids in December, January and February that the team began to make a move toward a playoff spot. Those tough times included difficulty against Iowa as the Wild built an overall 4-1-0-1 regular season record over the Admirals.

“We looked at each other in the eyes and (ourselves) in the mirror and kind of questioned ourselves if we were doing it right and that was a big difference,” defenseman Alex Carrier told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Just focus about our team and just play hard.”

Of the 27 players on the Admirals current roster, only 13 played on opening night. Seven players on the roster began this season with other AHL teams.

Those players include forwards Adam Helewka, Cole Schneider and Laurent Dauphin, arriving in Milwaukee after trades with Tucson and Hartford. The three alone have totaled a combined 132 points with the Admirals and their previous team.

Iowa Head Coach Tim Army said the Admirals, like a number of teams in the AHL, reflects in some ways the city they played in.

“It’s a tough team that has grit and push,” Army said. “I imagine Milwaukee is a lot like that.”

As for the changes, Army said the roster turnover has increased the team’s ability to score and its size, which will challenge the smaller but speedier Wild.

“They’ve made changes that have worked well for them,” Army said. “They now are a bigger team than drives to the net and has a strong defense.”

In addition, Army said, veteran goalies Troy Grosenick and Tom McCollum have provided solid work, particularly during the six weeks when the team posted a 13-2-4-1 record. In the final 10 games of the season, the club collected nine of a possible ten points.

Army said one of the biggest contributors to Milwaukee’s success has been a strong fourth line led by center Tyler Gaudet. When Iowa lost to Milwaukee 5-1 on April 6, the Admirals fourth line caused a lot of problems.

“That is a good line and that is one of the reasons that they’ve been able to play so well lately,” Army said.

The Wild intends to counter the Admirals’ fourth line with a line of center Colton Beck and wingers Sam Anas and Mike Liambas, the latter playing four seasons in Milwaukee from 2013 to 2017.

That line, according to Army, has been able to provide Iowa’s three other lines with fewer minutes on the ice in addition to strong checking and momentum.

“They’ve played very well and it’s helped all the other lines at the right moments,” Army said. “They might not have scored goals, but they provided energy and momentum a lot.”

Beck said Iowa’s success this season has been the result of a commitment by the team to each other.

“This is likely the closest team I have been a member of in all my years in hockey,” Beck said. “That’s not easy in pro hockey because it can be pretty dog-eat-dog. But this team has been close all season.”

O’Reilly, now is in his 13th season in the AHL, and Liambas, who is in his seventh AHL season, each played for the Admirals for close to four seasons. Each remembers their years in Milwaukee fondly – both on and off the ice.

“I loved it there,” said Liambas, who played in 213 games with Milwaukee. “We had a very close team. We all lived downtown and we always had things to do. We made the playoffs three of the four years.”

Liambas said he is looking forward to the challenge of playing one of his old teams in the playoffs. He said his new club has become stronger since going through a late-season losing streak that ended with three consecutive victories against two Central Division playoff teams – Grand Rapids and Chicago – and Rockford, which was still seeking a berth when the two teams played.

“When you come out on top at the end, you grow as a team having proved to yourself you can do it.” Liambas said. “I am sure there will be moments in the playoffs that we will go through some adversity and have to find a way to come out on top.  It was a good lesson for us to go through it."

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