LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: Austin Watson, drafted 18th by the Nashville Predators, poses for a portrait during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Milwaukee Admirals came into tonights game against the Chicago Wolves needing something to change. After losing 4 straight games and slipping into last place in their division, they needed someone to step up, some puck luck, and possibly a genie with three additional wishes to right the ship of what has been a bit of a disappointing season so far. Fortunately, the Admirals were able to find a couple guys willing to play hero and escaped the Allstate Arena with a 4-3 win in a shootout.
Rookie goaltender Magnus Hellberg's first North American season has been off to a bit of a shaky start. Somehow he came into tonights game with a 2-0 record, but has given up many soft goals en route to a 4.22 goals against average and a 0.842 save percentage. Tonight he showed signs of a new man though, and stood tall (literally and figuratively) stopping 30 of 33 shots in regulation, and 5 of the 6 shootout attempts he faced.
The other hero of the night was rookie forward Austin Watson. Austin was named first star of the game after collecting 2 goals, an assist, and a goal in the shootout to lead the Admirals to victory. He also earned high praise from Assistant Coach Stan Drulia after the game. Drulia said "He's a great player, he has a lot of great detail in his game and plays well on both sides of the ice. He watches a lot of video and plays in a ton of situations. When those guys are paying the price defensively, it's nice to see them score"
The game got off to a familiar start however, as Chicago picked up the first goal. With defenseman Jonathon Blum in the box for an unnecessary interference penalty, former Admiral Darren Haydar controlled the puck on the left wing half wall, and slid a pass to Zack Kassian who delivered a beautiful pass across the crease to a streaking Brad Hunt who blast it home for a 1-0 lead.
Milwaukee was able to tie the score at 1 when Joonas Jarvinen made a strong play at the point to hold the zone after a Chicago clearing attempt and tapped a backhand pass to Daniel Bang who skated toward the net and fired a wrister that Eddie Lack made a save on, but the rebound popped right back out in between the circles to Juuso Puustinen who fired a shot that was deflected in by Watson to tie the game at 1. Watson was in a perfect spot behind the defenseman and was so stealthy that the goal was originally credited to Puustinen, and changed later to Watson.
The Admirals took the lead just over a minute into the 2nd period when Blum pushed the puck up the ice to Watson, who dished a pass to Bang, who then skated over the blue line and rifled a wrister from the top of the circle that beat Lack low to the stick side for a 2-1 lead. Chicago returned fire an an almost identical goal midway through the 2nd period when Jordan Schroeder took a feed from Andrew Gordon and fired a wrist shot that beat Hellberg low on the glove side to tie the game at 2.
With the score being 1-1 after 1, and 2-2 after 2, would you like to take a guess how the 3rd period unfolded?
Chicago was able to take the lead with just under 3:30 to play on a goal that was such a fluke, you couldn't recreate it on a video game if you tried. Wolves forward Andrew Ebbett skated to the bottom of the left circle and fired a wrist shot that was blocked by Ryan Ellis high into the air. As the puck came down, Haydar batted it out of the air from behind the goal line where it found Kassian alone in front of the net, and he was able to score to give the Wolves a 3-2 lead.
After giving up a goal in the last minute in Peoria last night to allow the Rivermen to tie the game, tonight it was the Admirals who used some late heroics to tie the game and send it to overtime. Bang made a strong play out of the corner and was able to move to the crease where he found a wide open Puustinen at the top of the circle. He fired a one-timer that was blocked by a Wolves skate and kicked back out to the point where Ellis fired a slap shot that was tipped beautifully by the stick of Watson in front of the net to tie the game at 3. Watson was in the perfect place for the deflection off the backhand of his stick that was able to push the puck under the pads of Lack, in a deflection that even the Chicago announcers called "incredible." The Admirals coaches have said often that they need guys who are willing to go to the dirty areas of the ice to make plays happen, and this was the 2nd occasion of the night that Watson did this, and he was rewarded with the best night of his young pro career. With this goal, he moved to the top of the stats chart as the Admirals leading scorer with 7 goals and 6 assists.
The Wolves put on some pressure in the first two minutes of the overtime period and had a few good chances, but after that, both teams seemed willing to play for the shootout. I can understand why the Wolves would want to do so as they came into the night with the leagues best percentage in the shootout scoring on 75% of their chances, and Lack had stopped 87.5% of the shootout shots he had faced so far on the season. But as you know, the game isn't played on paper.
It was Watson again who would make a play in the 2nd round of the shootout to get the Admirals on the board first. He skated right up the middle of the ice and blasted a quick wrist shot through the five hole of Lack to put the Admirals up 1-0 after the 2nd round. Both goalies stood strong in the 3rd round and finally Wolves forward Zack Kassian was able to beat Hellberg in the 4th round. Both shooters were stymied in the 5th round, and Hellberg made a save on Anton Rodin in the 6th. Head Coach Dean Evason decided to go with a defenseman in the 6th round and Blum was able to make a great deke on Lack and roofed the puck barely under the cross bar for the win.
Hellberg looked much improved over his previous performances, and was excellent in the shootout. Coach Drulia attributes that to some of the extra work he has put in recently, "He's been working really hard, we've put a lot of time in with him on his glove hand and keeping it in a better position and he used it a lot tonight." It was certainly nice to see him play up to his potential and pick up a win in his first North American shootout.
The Admirals are on the way to Grand Rapids for an afternoon matchup with the Griffins. Puck drops at 3pm Central and it will be interesting to see how both teams react to the 3 games in 3 days, both with long bus travel the night before as Grand Rapids played in Peoria. Grand Rapids is on an impressive 8 game winning streak but anything can happen when the farm teams of Detroit and Nashville collide.
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