Just about everything has gone right for the Milwaukee Admirals this season. A 22-5-0 record from Oct. 25 through Jan. 1 sent the Admirals to the top of the league standings – with 82 points, they sit firmly in first place heading into the stretch run.
The Admirals have made it past the conference quarterfinal just once in the past decade and have made the AHL final just twice since moving over from the IHL in 2001, winning a title in 2003-04. But whether it's having two of the top goaltenders in the league, two of the best point-per-game forwards in Daniel Carr and Yakov Trenin or a stout, veteran defense corps, the Admirals are as good as ever and primed for a Calder Cup run.
Led by coach Karl Taylor – a leading candidate for an NHL promotion over the next few seasons, the Admirals have had very few missteps along the way this season. With 19 games to go, 50 wins aren't out of the question for a team with 37 already – if they do, it would be the first time in team history where the Admirals had 50 wins, but the sixth time hitting at least 100 points.
Milwaukee has been the team to beat all season long, but which clubs are the closest challengers? Here's a look at five other teams that could make a strong case for the Calder Cup this season and dethrone the defending Charlotte Checkers:
Iowa Wild, 76 points (NHL affiliate: Minnesota)
When you have the two top scorers in the league, you're bound to be a serious championship contender. Sam Anas (63 points) and Gerry Mayhew (61) lead the way, and Mayhew would be in even better standing if it wasn't for a stint with Minnesota. Brennan Menell has been one of the league's best defensemen, leading a 'D' group that has solid depth. The Wild seem to find offense from just about everywhere and Kaapo Kahkonen is one of the best goalies in the league with a 24-6-2 record and six shutouts, so the Wild have a well-rounded group.
Belleville Senators, 75 points (NHL affiliate: Ottawa)
The Senators could, perhaps, have the most exciting group of young prospects in the AHL right now. Josh Norris, a 20-year-old that left the University of Michigan after two seasons, has been spectacular with 58 points in 52 games (including 19 in the past 12 games) and if he doesn't stick up in the NHL long, he's a true contender for the AHL top scorer's award. Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson aren't far behind and Rudolfs Balcers will be a nice addition once he returns. Joey Daccord's stats aren't great in the Belleville net, but he can get the job done.
Hershey Bears, 74 points (NHL affiliate: Washington)
It wouldn't be an AHL regular season without the Bears proving once again why they're one of the strongest franchises in the league. In fact, of the top five teams in the league right now, the Bears are the only ones with an NHL team in spitting distance of the Stanley Cup, too. Unlike the teams ahead of them, though, the Bears are doing it without a single player recording 40 points – instead, 12 have at least 20, showcasing a team built around depth. Daniel Sprong will be a nice addition to a group that has Philippe Maillet and Matt Moulson up front, and the net tandem of Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek gives the Bears a chance to win every single night.
Hartford Wolf Pack, 71 points (NHL affiliate: New York Rangers)
Not having Igor Shesterkin available due to injury while with the big club is a big loss for the Wolf Pack, but the rest of the team has proven capable of picking up the slack. AHL veteran Jean-Francois Berube is in the fray and should spell Adam Huska with some key starts down the road. Julien Gauthier, acquired from Carolina last week in exchange for Joey Keane, is as good as power forwards come this season and will be a fantastic addition to the club once he returns to the minors. Brett Howden, who has spent the season with New York, is also eligible for the post-season, so that's a big pickup. AHL veterans Vinni Lettieri, Steven Fogarty and Boo Nieves make up the team's lead forward group, but Rangers fans would like to see a bit more out of Vitali Kravtsov, too.
Providence Bruins, 70 points (NHL affiliate: Boston)
Having one good goalie is nice. Having two? That's a bonus. The Bruins have gotten good goaltending out of Max Lagace and Dan Vladar this season, something not all the top contenders have. Jack Studnicka's 42 points is good for fourth among AHL rookies and first among Providence forwards, so look for him to make a splash before a potential NHL call-up next season. AHL vets Paul Carey and Brendan Gaunce have been good as expected but the defense group of Alex Petrovic, Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen, among others, has been a blast to watch. With a 7-2-1 record over the past 10 games, only the Wild have been better down the stretch as of late.
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