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AHL Morning Skate: May 15, 2024 |

“They step up their game like we do.”

Those were the words of the Milwaukee forward Zach L'Heureuxtalking about the importance of the Admirals having their home fans behind them as the Central Division playoff series against Grand Rapids opens tonight.

The UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena has been great for the Admirals this season. They went 27-9-0-0 on home ice during the regular season, the second-best record in the league. After dropping the first two games of their divisional semifinal series in Texas, the Admirals salvaged their season and returned home with three straight wins against the Stars.

L'Heureux, who turns 21 today, has helped create a lot of that buzz, putting up five goals and eight points in the last three games as his team faces relegation. He had a strong rookie season with Milwaukee, finishing with 48 points (19 goals, 29 assists) in 66 games while serving as an offensive force, disrupting opponents.

Milwaukee finished 11 points ahead of second-place Grand Rapids in the Central Division, giving them a chance to play in the series.

“I feel like a big part of playing at home is having the crowd behind you,” L'Heureux said. “They encourage you. They make you want to play better when you score, and they shout. Even when you need a goal, and they're on their feet, and they're congratulating you, it's a special feeling you get as a player.

“Being at home is big…starting and putting the word out early. I think it will be a good series.”

The Ontario Reign have been one of the few teams to have success entering Acrisure Arena this season, making three of their four trips to the Coachella Valley against the Pacific Division champions.

The Firebirds will host Game 1 of the best-of-five Pacific Division series tonight.

So far in two rounds of playoff hockey, the Reign has gone 5-0. Two of those wins have come on the road. They also went 23-12-1-0 on the road, which ranked third in the AHL during the regular season. Both teams have well-traveled fan bases, and there will be plenty of fans visiting both clubs with only 80 miles separating the two markets.

“We're excited,” the two-time AHL MVP and Reign captain TJ Tynan said. “It plays in the middle [that] building is always fun. They have a good set-up there. The fans are great. So are we. We have the best fans in the league. I know they're going to support us so it's going to be a lot of fun.”

Tynan knows what postseason hockey feels like. He won the Calder Cup with Lake Erie in 2016 and was a finalist in 2019 with Chicago. He's been through the play-off grind and expects more of that against the Firebirds.

“They have a great team, and so do we, so it should be a good series.”

The Firebirds have bigger plans than just one series win.

“The situation right now is just being reset,” he said Devin Shore said this week. “Everyone is back to zero. They're a really good team there, too. It will be a big challenge. I think both teams deserve to be here, and it should be an exciting fight.”

It will be a tough test again. On the other hand, the Firebirds rely on the depth of their roster against a heavy, physical opponent like Reign, a team that also has an upper-class power play.

“I think if we play our best, the depth of our team is a big strength,” said Shore. “In the games we play, we seem to roll line by line in the attacking area and then we continue this pressure and create opportunities again. Some of them go in, some don't, but that's just the flow of taking it to the opponent and playing quickly.

“We will try to do that.”

The Firebirds added another young talent to their roster ahead of the series, as the Seattle Kraken reassigned a defenseman. Nelson said from the North Bay of the Ontario Hockey League to the Coachella Valley. The 20-year-old Nelson, a 2022 third-round pick by Seattle, had 52 points (16 goals, 36 assists) in 54 games for North Bay during the regular season before picking up another 14 points (five goals, nine assists ) in 16 playoff games. He also represented Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship this season.

― with files from Patrick Williams

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