Playoff primer: Heat vs. Admirals

The Abbotsford Heat have earned home ice advantage for the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, yet they start on the road.

Heat forward Ben Walter circles the net as Milwaukee Admirals goalie Jeremy Smith keeps tabs on him during a game at the AESC earlier this season.

Heat forward Ben Walter circles the net as Milwaukee Admirals goalie Jeremy Smith keeps tabs on him during a game at the AESC earlier this season.

Figure this one out – the Abbotsford Heat have earned home ice advantage for the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, yet they start on the road against the Milwaukee Admirals.

It’s one of the quirks of the new AHL post-season schedule, which features a best-of-five series in the first round rather than the more familiar best-of-seven.

The schedule is in a 2-3 format, with the higher seed – in this case, the Heat – having the option as to whether to host the first two games at home, or the last three.

The Heat elected to start on the road, which is a scenario they’re comfortable with. Abbotsford went 24-11-0-3 away from home, tying the Oklahoma City Barons for the most road wins in the Western Conference.

“It’s as much home as it is here (in Abbotsford),” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “For whatever reason, this group of people has felt comfortable all year on the road.

“This particular group, it’s got a level of maturity to it. I think our veterans and our leadership group have done a nice job of preparing our guys to play on the road. I think they just like the simplicity that we have there.”

As for the best-of-five format, Ward isn’t a fan.

“Maybe I’m old and traditional, but I’d like all the series to be seven-game series,” he said. “I just think you play 76 (regular season) games . .  and that seems like a lot of hard fighting (to come) down to just a five-game series.

“My (player) development thought process is, I want to put a 20-year-old kid in a seven-game series and see what he’s got in Game 7. I think that’s special, I really do.”

Heat centre Ben Walter noted there’s less margin for error in a best-of-five series.

“Every game is that much more important, if you can say that,” he said. “Best-of-five is a little shorter. You’ve really got to be ready.”

TWO HOT TEAMS

The Heat have plenty of swagger heading into the playoffs, as they wrapped up the regular season on an 8-0-0-1 tear.

But the Admirals are red-hot in their own right. The Nashville Predators’ affiliate went 6-1-0-1 over its last eight games, clawing back into the post-season picture and clinching a berth on the final day of the regular season. It’s Milwaukee’s 10th straight playoff appearance, which ties the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for the longest active streak in the AHL.

The pressure gets ratcheted up in the playoffs, and Heat captain Quintin Laing said it’s important to savour that.

“You don’t want to get too high or too low, but you want to enjoy the pressure,” he said. “Just from watching the NHL playoffs, I think guys get a sense from watching the regular season compared to watching the playoffs.

“You’d better expect to get hit, and you’d better be out there blocking shots and making plays, because one play can make the difference. That’s exciting, and that’s what guys want. It makes it meaningful.”

MUELLER, SMITH AMONG ADMIRALS TO WATCH

Ward rates the Admirals’ skill level up front very highly, and Chris Mueller (73 games, 32 goals, 28 assists, 60 points) is Milwaukee’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

Kyle Wilson (68 gp, 22g, 32a, 54pts) and Taylor Beck (74gp, 17g, 24a, 40pts) also make major contributions, while goalie Jeremy Smith is the backbone of a defence that surrendered the fourth-fewest goals in the league. The AHL’s reigning player of the week posted a 31-19-2 record with a sparking 2.17 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.

Milwaukee underwent a midseason coaching change, as assistant Ian Herbers moved into the top role after Kirk Muller departed to take over the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Admirals went 3-1 vs. the Heat during the regular season, including an 8-3 drubbing in Milwaukee on Nov. 29 in Herbers’s head coaching debut that marked the most goals Abbotsford allowed all year.

“It was just one of those games where they buried pretty much every chance they had in the first period, and we got off to a slow start, which was something we were working on at that point in the year,” Walter analyzed. “But we’re a different team now than we were back then, and I think they know that, too.

“They’ve got some really quick forwards who are good with the puck, and their D are big and strong, and they’ve got pretty solid goaltending. We’ve got to approach it like we’ve approached every game this month. We’re on a pretty good run right now.”

TOP LINE ON A TEAR

The top task for Milwaukee will be slowing down the Heat’s top line of Krys Kolanos, Paul Byron and Dustin Sylvester.

Ward tried the trio together for the first time on March 25, and they found instant chemistry, combining for 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in eight games.

REINHART IN THE MIX

The Heat are taking 26 players to Milwaukee for the first two games. They’re all players who Ward believes could be a factor at some point in the series, and he wants them to watch all the games in person.

Included in that crew is rookie centre Max Reinhart. The 20-year-old, who joined the Heat three weeks ago after his junior season with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice ended, made a splash in his pro debut, scoring twice in a win over the Toronto Marlies last Sunday.

Reinhart is more than injury insurance – Ward said there’s a chance the youngster could draw into the lineup for Friday’s Game 1, if the coaching staff decides his skill set matches up well with Milwaukee.

“He could be a factor in the playoffs, for sure,” Ward said.

NO BOUMA, BRODIE

The NHL parent Calgary Flames, though they’re outside the NHL playoff picture, elected not to send forward Lance Bouma and defenceman T.J. Brodie to the Heat for the AHL post-season. Both players started the season with Abbotsford, but spent the bulk of the campaign with Calgary.

Ward said he’s fine with that decision, noting that players who come down from the NHL can tend to struggle with motivation at the lower level.

“This is a time of year where you’re better off going with the guys who have been here all year, in my opinion,” he said. “No disrespect to Booms and Brodie. They’re great kids, and I want to be a part of their life again at some point. But I think it’s just better we move forward with this group.”

SERIES SCHEDULE

The Heat-Admirals series schedule is as follows (all times Pacific):

Game 1: Abbotsford at Milwaukee, Friday, April 20, 5 p.m.

Game 2: Abbotsford at Milwaukee, Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m.

Game 3: Milwaukee at Abbotsford, Wednesday, April 25, 7 p.m.

*Game 4: Milwaukee at Abbotsford, Friday, April 27, 7 p.m.

*Game 5: Milwaukee at Abbotsford, Saturday, April 28, 7 p.m.

*if necessary