Welcome to the last Antler Banter of 2009! After a week-long break, the Moose returned to action on Sunday and Monday as the Abbotsford Heat traveled east to Winnipeg for a two-game set. With the Heat hot on the heels of Manitoba in the standings, these two games were vitally important to both teams in terms of the points at hand. Did the Moose use the week off to work on the little things to get their overall success rolling, or does 2009 end in the same fashion as the previous three months of .500 hockey? Also, there was more shuffling of the lineup with releases and call-ups, and we'll look at the injury report as the Moose begin to get healthy for the new year. As always, for all of your Manitoba Moose news and information, don't forget to check out the Moose website. If you're interested in attending a Manitoba Moose game, please click here for seating information, ticket pricing, and availability. Happy New Year of Hardcore Hockey!
Manitoba came into the game needing a couple of wins over their division rivals from BC in order to put some space between the two clubs. These four points over the next two nights could prove huge down the stretch, so there was hope that Manitoba could pull off two wins over Abbotsford. 7748 fans took in the Sunday game that saw Cory Schneider take to the nets for Manitoba while Matt Keetley drew the assignment for Abbotsford.
It didn't take long for Manitoba to show that they were hungry for the win. With Keith Seabrook off for holding just 1:59 into the game, the Moose powerplay went to work quickly and efficiently. Brian Salcido's wrist shot from the point at the 2:05 mark got the home side on the board as it appeared to have deflected in off of Abbotsford defenseman Matt Pelech. Salcido's powerplay goal was his fourth of the year. Marty Murray drew an assist on the goal after winning the face-off in the offensive zone cleanly, and this kind of success in the face-off circle will help the Moose immensely.
A few more penalties were handed out as the rest of the first period was winding down, but they had little effect on the outcome. I will say that this first period of hockey might have been the best that I've seen the Moose play this season. Shots were kept to the outside for the most part, and the Moose played aggressively. With the shot clock favoring the Moose by a 13-6 margin, the Moose took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
Michael Grabner made his return to the Moose line-up in a big way as he opened the second period with a gorgeous goal just 2:08 in. Sergei Shirokov found the speedy winger standing all alone at the edge of the crease with a pass through two Heat defenders, and Grabner roofed his fifth of the season over the sprawling Keetley to give the Moose a 2-0 advantage.
At 6:38 of the second, the Moose struck again. Marco Rosa sent the puck behind the net to Sergei Shirokov. Shirokov saw defenseman Nathan McIver pinching in from the point, and fed him the puck in the face-off circle. McIver hammered a blast past Keetley's blocker for his first of the season, and Manitoba was off and running with a 3-0 lead.
Just 1:30 later, the Moose opened a four-goal advantage. Pierre-Cedric Labrie picked up a loose puck after Tommy Maxwell had won a battle along the boards, and skated the puck out to the blue line before flipping it over to Evan Oberg. Oberg took two strides and unleashed a high slapshot that got past Keetley on the blocker side. Oberg's first of the season gave the Moose a 4-0 lead at the 8:08 mark. With that goal, Keetley's night was done, and Leland Irving was sent out to try and salvage something for Abbotsford.
Manitoba carried the play in this period as well, and they won a lot of the battles for loose pucks. Again, Manitoba outshot Abbotsford in this period by a 12-7 advantage, and played extremely well in their own zone. After 40 minutes, the Moose had a solid 4-0 lead.
The third period was more of the aggressive Moose play. Bodies were banged, shots were fired, and saves were made. However, Abbotsford came out with a renewed sense of aggression as well, and they began matching the Moose shot for shot.
Travis Ramsey was whistled for holding at the 15:47 mark of the third period, sending Abbotsford to their fifth powerplay of the night. Keith Seabrook wired a shot on net from the point that Schneider couldn't smother, and Kris Chucko poked the puck under Schneider and across the goal line for his ninth goal of the season. With the score 4-1 and only 3:42 remaining, the Heat shifted into desperation hockey.
However, it wasn't to be as the Moose withstood the onslaught of Heat shots late in the third, securing the 4-1 win. Schneider shone brightly in net tonight, but this game was really a collaborative team effort from whistle to whistle. Everyone showed good hustle, a lot of little things were done extremely well, and the end result was a win that brought back memories of last season. With the victory, the Moose improve their record to 18-14-4-0.
With the win in the books the previous night, the Moose looked to turn around their dismal second game record this season with another "W" against the Heat. With the Heat falling two points further back of the Moose, you know they were looking for the split. With 7636 Moose fans escaping the cold, the Moose really looked to put the pressure on the Heat.
Geoff Waugh and Abbotsford's JD Watt renewed acquaintances just 4:09 into the game as Waugh took exception to Watt's hit on Nathan McIver. After they danced for a minute, both men took a five-minute break. Manitoba jumped out to an early lead thanks to Brian Salcido once again. Just 40 seconds later, Salcido one-timed a Travis Ramsey feed high and hard to Irving's blocker side, and the Moose were on the board. Salcido's fifth of the season, and second goal on back-to-back nights, put the Moose up 1-0. Both teams played a little tighter as chances were limited, but the Moose took that one-goal lead into the dressing room after 20 minutes of play.
With both teams testing the defense of their opposition, play was tight to open the second period. Mikael Backlund and Evan Oberg were sent off for roughing just 1:09 into the middle frame, and the rough stuff didn't end there. Hits were being dished out by both teams until two of the bigger kids had had enough. Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Abbotsford's Ryley Grantham solved their disagreement through a bout of fisticuffs, and a massive right fist from Labrie to Grantham's cranium scored him the win in this battle.
Goaltender Cory Schneider made a number of highlight reel stops in this period, but he couldn't stop them all. With Tommy Maxwell sitting in the sin bin for roughing, the Heat evened the game. Riley Armstrong tried to jam the puck underneath Schneider from the side of the net on the stick side, but Schneider made the stop. However, the puck popped straight out to the top of the crease where Jamie Lundmark was lurking, and the veteran sniper netted his eighth of the season on the powerplay at the 17:51 mark.
After 40 minutes, the game was tied at 1-1, but without the efforts of Irving and Schneider, it could have been 9-9. Both goalies were incredible in the second period as the two teams combined for 29 shots-on-goal. Abbotsford held the slight edge in the game at a 25-24 count, but both teams had excellent chances turned away by spectacular goaltending.
The third period saw the tight checking continue, but the teams held their discipline in check as only one penalty was called on either side. The goaltending clinic being held at either end of the ice was the difference as neither team could find the twine in the third. Overtime was much the same as both the Heat and Moose were comfortable in not allowing either side to gain an advantage, so it was off to the shootout to decide this one.
Schneider was perfect on all four shots he faced, while the Moose scored on two of three attempts. Marco Rosa and Michael Grabner beat Irving to give Manitoba the 2-1 shootout victory, improving their record to 19-14-4-0.
One note that should be pointed out is that Jamie Lundmark was assessed a ten-minute misconduct under Rule 75.4 at the end of the overtime period. According to the rule, there are four incidents where this rule may be applicable, but only one fits the situation in which Lundmark received the penalty. That portion of the rule states that "[a]ny player or goalkeeper who, after warning by the Referee, persists in any course of conduct (including threatening or abusive language or gestures or similar actions) designed to incite an opponent into incurring a penalty".
While it had no bearing on the outcome of the game - Lundmark was the fourth shooter in the shootout - this is the first time I have ever seen an official hand out a misconduct for "threatening language". Referee Jean Hebert must have heard or seen something that was entirely inappropriate from Lundmark to warrant that kind of penalty.
The four points that Manitoba picked up this week are enormous. Having played 37 games already, the Moose now sit firmly entrenched in third place in the North Division with 42 points. They have a five-point lead over both Grand Rapids and Abbotsford. They also trail Hamilton by three points and Rochester by four points. While Rochester has three games in hand (GIH) and Hamilton has four GIH, the Moose distanced themselves nicely from the Griffins and Heat. Abbotsford has a mere one GIH while Grand Rapids has three GIH. As I stated before the Christmas break, winning divisional games was paramount for the Moose. There is the proof of that statement.
While concussions still plague a couple of Moose players, there is light at the end of the tunnel for another mainstay on the blue line.
- Nolan Baumgartner - broken finger. Baumgartner has been skating with the Moose this week, and is hopeful for a return against the Texas Stars this weekend. Otherwise, the Moose reargaurd should be ready for a rematch of last year's Calder Cup against the Hershey Bears.
- Michael Funk - concussion. Word from head coach Scott Arniel is that Funk is still experiencing concussion symptoms. This is extremely worrisome in that Funk has had a couple of concussions within a one-year period. No time set for a return, but it might be better to hold him out for the rest of the season.
- Matt McCue - concussion. No return date set, but the Moose are playing it safe with their concussed players. This treatment of not rushing players back is something that should be applauded and endorsed throughout the hockey world.
The Canucks recalled one Moose player this week who had contributed to their recent success, and the Moose released another player.
- Mark McCutcheon - released from PTO. McCutcheon's time in Manitoba wasn't marked with a lot of scoring as he recorded no points, but he did provide adequate relief to a team racked with injuries and call-ups earlier. However, his lack of production in his twelve games probably spelled the end for the plucky centerman.
- Alexandre Bolduc - recalled by the Vancouver Canucks. Bolduc was recalled due to Jannik Hansen's inconsistent play, according to Canucks' coach Alain Vigneault. However, Pavol Demitra is skating with the Canucks again, so it appears this move will be temporary.
The Moose have the West Division-leading Texas Stars in town this week. The two clubs meet up at MTS Centre at 4PM CST on New Year's Eve for the Moose's annual New Year's Eve game, and then play the second of two games on Sunday night. This should be a great test to see if the Moose's recent play is indicative of their commitment to this style of play, or was simply a matter of catching Abbotsford off-guard. The Stars enter the game with a 20-10-2-3 record for 45 points.
The Stars have three players leading their team with 21 points. Former Moose forward Greg Rallo is having an outstanding season with 12 goals and nine assists. His 12 goals are a team-best for Texas. Also at 21 points with identical six goal-15 assist records are Aaron Gagnon and Perttu Lindgren. Veteran defenseman and Canucks property Brad Lukowich is leading the Stars from the blue line. Lukowich has three goals and 15 assists this season. Goaltender Brent Krahn has been absolutely outstanding in net for the Stars. In 12 games this season, he has a 10-2-0 record with three shutouts, a 1.41 GAA, and a .958 save percentage.
Clearly, this Stars team is playing extremely good hockey, and they will be a stiff test for the Moose. A weekend split would be a good result, but the Moose should really be looking for all four points while playing at home.
I just want to take this time to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and to remind you to be responsible on New Year's Eve. If you're going to have a drink, please don't drive. Let's ring in 2010 in the happiest way possible!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!