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Central Division Final Preview: Texas Stars vs. Milwaukee Admirals

Central Division Final Preview: Texas Stars vs. Milwaukee Admirals

CEDAR PARK, Texas – It was always meant to be.

The top two teams of the Central Division all season long, back and forth, have met at the summit of the division. While the Stars finished just a handful of points higher than the Admirals, the margin between both squads remains paper thin in this matchup – especially with Milwaukee’s added personnel following the end of their parent club’s season in Nashville. From Phil Tomasino to Luke Evangelistathe Admirals are locked and loaded at full strength.

The Stars meet them without star defender Thomas Harleywho remains in Dallas with the Stars of a higher power, but they remain as dangerous and as deadly as ever with a deep roster that finished tops in an ultra-competitive Central Division. From veteran leaders like Riley Barber and Curtis McKenzie to the youthful vigor of Mavrik Bourque and Matthew Murray, the Stars have their sights set on the Western Conference Finals.

Regular Season Records:

Texas: 40-20-9-3 (1st in Central)

Milwaukee: 41-24-5-2 (2nd in Central)

How They Got Here:

With their top seeding, the Stars got to face the winner of the first-round matchup of Rockford and Iowa. With Rockford winning in consecutive overtime games, their prize was to face the rested Stars. Texas overpowered the IceHogs with a steady flurry of goals, outscoring the IceHogs 13-6 over the course of a three-game sweep of the second round series. Rhett Gardner was the brightest Star of the series with 5 points in the 3 victories for Texas (and 18 PIMs to boot).

Milwaukee faced a tougher challenge on their way to the Division Final. Matched up against the third seed Manitoba Moose, their second round series was an absolute war of attrition over five games, with the pivotal victory in Game 5 coming off the stick of Spencer Stastney with less than 30 seconds to go to lift the Admirals to this next heavyweight bout before them.

Series Schedule:

Game One: Texas at MILWAUKEE – Friday, May 12th 7:00 PM CDT

Game Two: Texas at MILWAUKEE – Saturday, May 13th 6:00 PM CDT

Game Three: Milwaukee at TEXAS – Wednesday, May 17th 7:00 PM CDT

*Game Four: Milwaukee at TEXAS – Friday, May 19th 7:00 PM CDT

*Game Five: Milwaukee at TEXAS – Sunday, May 21st 7:00 PM CDT

* – if necessary

Season Series Recap:

Head-to-head, these teams were as even as it got. In eight games, both teams won four games, with each team also taking one loss in overtime. While these two teams haven’t seen one another since early March, you can expect tight checking and white knuckles. Six of the eight games were decided by one goal, with another decided by two (one blowout win in favor of Texas).

Markus Nurmi led the way for the Admirals, scoring six points in five games during the season series. Nurmi, however, won’t be available on the Admirals’ roster and scoring will instead need to come from some of their other scoring leaders such as Tomasino, Evangelista, and Michael McCarronwho scored five points in four games against the Stars. While Milwaukee has a formidable one-two punch in net in Yaroslav Askarov and Devin Cooley, both goaltenders were shelled in the season series for over 3 goals per game and featuring less than .900 save percentages against their divisional foes.

For Texas, it was the usual suspects leading the way against the Admirals. Barber paced the team with 9 points in the season series, while Bourque finished second with 8. Look out for Riley Tufte to be involved physically, as he was involved in 28 minutes of penalties in the eight games against Milwaukee. It ought to not take Tufte long to reintroduce himself to some old friends like Milwaukee’s McCarron. In net, Murray sported a .964 save percentage over three starts against the Admirals and will look to continue his hot start to this postseason.

How Texas Wins:

Control the game from the blue line. Texas gets a lot of spotlight on their forwards that put up big numbers and fill nets, but their team’s success begins from their own zone. Without Harley to begin exits out of the zone, Texas will have to lean on defenders like Ben GleasonRyan Shea, and Oskari Laaksonen to get the puck out and in transition to said forwards. It’s been a strength of theirs all season, and it will have to continue here for the Stars to find success against a rough and heavy Milwaukee team.

The other Matt Murray. At first, he became a bit of a folk hero for sharing the same name and position as two-time Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray, but he’s become an even bigger hero with his command of the net. Undrafted out of Alberta, his opponent across from him will be Askarov – a blue-chip, top prospect taken in the first round of the 2020 draft. Despite their differing paths to get to this stage, both goaltenders are capable of stealing some games in this series. Murray will have to outduel Askarov in this one for the Stars to advance.

How Milwaukee Wins:

Play heavy. Milwaukee has nine (NINE!) forwards at 6’3 or taller, and Austin Rueschhoff, who almost counts for two at 6’7. They also have the weight behind them to put Texas defenders into the fifth row. The Admirals need to utilize those heavy forecheckers to disrupt Texas’ breakouts, force extended shifts in the offensive zones with turnovers and board battles won, and wear down Texas so they can’t transition to their game with the puck. Texas won’t back down – not with Alex Petrovic waiting for them in the corner. The Admirals have to come fast and hard for them and crash at the boards and the net.

Special teams. Over the regular season, Milwaukee had the #1 power play in the AHL and the #3 penalty kill. Against Manitoba, the man advantage clicked with 31% success. The Stars won’t give them freebies while even strength, so the Admirals need to make them pay when they draw the calls. Conversely, if they win the 5-on-5 battles against Texas, they’re putting themselves in a much better position to succeed with their strength in special teams. It’s a position that favors Milwaukee and with that aforementioned paper-thin margin between these two teams, it could be a simple mental mistake that breaks this one open.



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    Andrew Rinaldi covers the Chicago Wolves for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @FPHWolves.

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