The Milwaukee Admirals opened the 2014-15 season with a franchise best start to a campaign with a six-game winning streak. That seemed to signal in to the AHL just what they were capable of and how big of a threat they would be to the league this season. Then came the month of December where the Admirals managed to go 3-6-2-1 including losing streaks of seven and four games in and out of the month. As of today, the Admirals are running on a season long seven game winning streak and are closing in on the Rockford IceHogs for the top spot in the Midwest Division.
“We’ve had a lot of growing pains this year,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “It’s all part of the development in the American Hockey League and we’ve seen it in the past. Probably as much to this extent because I guess our youth on our hockey club. There’s been an adjustment period for a lot of people. When we feel that we’re playing the right way, when we come together as a group, play as a team, it puts us in a good spot.”
On a three game road trip the Admirals played against the Hamilton Bulldogs, Utica Comets, and Adirondack Flames. They managed sweep the trip to extend their winning streak to seven games. The Admirals outscored their opponents 10-5 in those three games, had a power-play that went 3/9, and a penalty kill that managed a perfect 11/11.
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With Pekka Rinne‘s recent, and subsequent Marek Mazanec call up, it meant shouldering the load in net for Magnus Hellberg. The 2015 AHL All Star stopped 76/81 shots on the road trip and currently has the best goals against average (1.75) and second-best save percentage (0.934) in the league. He has won his last four starts consecutively and now has eleven wins on the season. To think, for his troubles last season with injury and form, he only had five wins in 2013-14.
During the past weekend the Admirals also saw their second man called up to make his NHL debut this season. Anthony Bitetto was given his first ever call up and debuted against the Detroit Red Wings. The New York native is in his third season with the Admirals and also saw some time with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL during the 2012-13 season.
“It’s a moment you’re never going to forget,” said Anthony Bitetto. “Special time. Unfortunately we didn’t get the win, 5-2 loss, but it’s incredible up there. It’s definitely somewhere I want to be. Hopefully I get an opportunity that will last a little longer. It was good to get my feet wet and I was very thankful for the opportunity.”
Bitetto is one of the players in the Admirals locker room that teammates and fans alike all gravitate to. When he was told of his call up the team was on the bus after their game with the Comets and he was mobbed by teammates in celebration. The same could be said when he met up with the Predators as familiar faces, such as Taylor Beck, were right there to congratulate him.
When the dust settled and it came for Bitetto’s NHL debut. It wasn’t the game that made him so nervous. It was actually skating out for pre-game warm ups.
“I didn’t want to run into anybody,” said Bitetto. “You’re looking around and you’re in the Joe Louis Arena. I mean, a ton of history there. It was wild. I was speechless at some points. Once the game gets going it is the same game you’ve been playing since three. It’s hockey at the end of the day.”
One of the biggest storylines that took place in the background to the Admirals winning streak was the news that Kevin Fiala would be joining the team. The Nashville Predators thirteenth overall selection in last year’s draft had signed an entry-level contract ahead of the season and was loaned back to HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League up until the decision was made to reassign him to the Admirals to start his North American development.
“We had [Fiala] at development camp,” said Evason. “He’s a special player. His stick skills, skating, combined with his competitiveness allows him to have success at such an early age. To watch him at the World Juniors – he dominated games there. It’s an exciting process for a young player. He’s going to have some growing pains. But, he’s played pro hockey. He just hasn’t played pro hockey in North America. So there’s going to be some growing pains there. He’s an intelligent kid. Loves the game. Loves to play hockey. It sets him up to have success.”
Fiala practiced with the Admirals on Tuesday and is set to make his North American pro debut tonight when the Admirals clash against the Comets. He practiced on a line as the left winger to Colton Sissons and right-winger Pontus Åberg. At only 18-years old Fiala has plenty of tools to make an already deep Admirals forward group that much more explosive.
“[Fiala] is going to have plenty of success in this league if he does the right things,” said Bitetto. “He’s got a lot of skill and if he finds open ice out there you watch out because he’s going to light it up. He’s a special player and we’re happy to have him here.”
Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
In addition to Fiala the Admirals will also see the return, yet again, of Viktor Stålberg. The Yo-Yo Man from Göteborg has been up and down between the Predators and Admirals four times this season. His last spell with the Predators saw him play five games while producing three assists before getting healthy scratched the next three games and reassigned to the Admirals.
“I should be collecting some air miles I guess,” smiled Viktor Stålberg. “It is what it is. I was happy with the way that I played. I felt good and was contributing. I thought I did what I could but it seems like it didn’t work out for them in the end. We’re back here and we’ll see what happens here now.”
While Stålberg might be gutted to be having the time that he has had since joining the Predators he is being placed on a line tomorrow night with the Admirals to produce. Austin Watson has been moved back to center after spending this season on the right-wing. Watson currently leads the Admirals in goal scoring with fifteen on the season. Stålberg’s opposite winger will be Brendan Leipsic who is still the Admirals leading scorer with twenty-nine points on the season.
The Admirals have two games this week and both will be a good test for different reasons. The Comets remain one of the toughest teams in the AHL this season and it took a last minute goal for Mark Van Guilder to defeat them last week. The rematch between the Admirals and Comets is set for Wednesday at home in Milwaukee. The Ads will then have another home game against the Iowa Wild. Despite how poor, top to bottom, the Wild have been in the NHL and AHL this season they’ve managed to irritatingly go 4-2-0-0 on the season series against the Admirals. That’s nearly one-third of their overall win total as they remain the worst team, by record, in the AHL.
Can the Admirals make it eight straight? Why not get greedy and see it go to nine? The Admirals have found themselves all over again and have been given reinforcements to make them an even stronger team. They are in serious striking distance for the top spot in the Midwest Division. The IceHogs are up by only three points but have played three more games than the Admirals have. The time to leapfrog back into first in the division could well be as early as Friday night.