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Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Antler Banter: Volume 11

Antler Banter is back this week with a look at the Moose's battles with the best team in the AHL. The Moose welcomed the defending Calder Cup champions in the Hershey Bears back to MTS Centre in a two-game series this past weekend. As you know, these two teams tangled in last season's Calder Cup Final, but the Moose have undergone vast changes. This series would be a good measuring stick to see how they stack up against the AHL's elite. The Moose also visited Abbotsford, so we'll update that series. Of course, player moves, injury reports, and the future games will be examined today. 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. On to the Hardcore Hockey!

Best of the Best

Friday night saw the return of the AHL-leading and Calder Cup-defending Hershey Bears to Winnipeg with the Bears bringin a ten-game winning streak to the game. Hershey is certainly one of the elite teams in the AHL, and that's reflected in both their play on the ice and the way the franchise runs their operation. This looked to be a big test for the Moose, but to be the best, you have to beat the best. Cory Schneider drew the assignment for the Moose while Braden Holtby took to the blue ice in the Hershey zone. Due to call-ups and player releases, the Moose only dressed five defencemen tonight, but the blueliners performed admirably.

As it seems with the majority of the games that the Moose play this season, the first period against teams that the Moose haven't seen this season are a feeling-out period. Such was the case against the Bears as neither team budged against the other. In fact, it took nearly seven minutes for the first shot to be registered as Hershey's Chris Bourque put the puck on net.

Moose call-up Taylor Ellington was whistled for the first penalty on a high-sticking call, but the Bears couldn't solve Schneider. I found it quite funny that Bears defenceman John Carlson was booed mercilessly by the Moose fans every time he touched the puck. Of course, Carlson was part of the gold-medal winning USA team at this year World Junior Championship, and the Moose fans reminded him he was on Canadian soil every chance they got. After one period, the Bears had outshot the Moose by an 8-6 total, however neither team could break the scoreless tie in front of 7779 fans at MTS Centre.

It took only 13 seconds into the second period for the scoreless draw to be broken. Andrew Gordon took a lovely cross-ice pass from Alexandre Giroux, and one-timed the puck past Schneider for his 17th goal of the season on the two-on-one. Keith Aucoin also drew an assist after winning a puck battle at the Moose blueline against Nolan Baumgartner, and his initial pass to Giroux started the play to give the Bears a 1-0 lead.

The battles continued in the second period as neither team gave the other any significant scoring chances without paying a price for them. However, the Moose drew even at 16:52. Matt Pope poked a puck between Patrick McNeill and Bryan Helmer where Matt Pettinger picked it up in full stride. Pettinger gained a step on Helmer as he broke in on the right side and pulled the puck to his backhand, forcing Holtby to slide across the crease. As Holtby opened up the five-hole as he slid across, Pettinger ticked his seventh goal of the season through the five-hole, and the Moose were even again. Honestly, Pettinger showed the Manitoba crowd a big-league, NHL-style goal with his speed and move.

A great goal had the crowd buzzing for the remainder of the period, but both teams went into the second intermission deadlocked at 1-1. In showing that they could skate with the Bears, the shots were even in that period at 14 apiece.

The third period remained the same as the tight-checking affair continued. Both Keith Aucoin and Guillaume Desbiens were sent off midway through the third period after some rough play for the only penalties of the period, so neither team had an opportunity to play with the man-advantage. With neither team giving the other many opportunities, the 1-1 game moved into an extra frame.

Overtime was just as fruitless as the third period, so a shootout was required to solve this game. The Moose took a perfect 6-0 record into the shootout. Marco Rosa and Kyle Wilson both scored in the opening round of the shootout. Michael Grabner put the home squad up with the next shot, but Alexandre Giroux tied it up with Hershey's third shot. Sergei Shirokov and Fran├žois Bouchard exchanged goals in the fourth round to make it 3-3 in the shootout. It would take another three shooters for either side before Andrew Gordon beat Cory Schneider to give Hershey the win.

Despite dropping the 2-1 game in the shootout, the Moose looked impressive against the Bears. Schneider was exceptional in the Moose nets again, and the Moose played very well against the best team in the AHL. With the shootout loss, the Moose fall to 21-14-4-1 on the season. Just as a roster note, Mathieu Schneider wore #24 in his first game for Manitoba Moose this season.

Almost, But Not Quite

After an exciting game in which the Moose dropped their first shootout loss the night before, the Moose looked for revenge on Saturday night against the Bears. 7784 fans turned out to see the second game of the two-game series against the defending Calder Cup Champions, so another solid crowd was on-hand for the Moose. Cory Schneider got the call for the Moose for the second night in a row, and the Bears responded by sending Braden Holtby back to the nets.

Hershey looked strong in the first period, hemming Manitoba in their own zone while on a powerplay. The Bears used an effective forecheck all night to keep the Moose off-balance. The first goal of the game went to the Bears, and the Aucoin-Giroux-Gordon combo was back on the scoresheet. Giroux chipped the puck into the Moose zone, and Mathieu Schneider couldn't corral it before the fleet-footed Andrew Gordon streaking down the right side got to the loose puck. With a step on Schneider, Gordon wired a wrist shot for his 18th goal of the season past Cory Schneider to give the Bears a 1-0 lead at 9:56 of the first period.

Similar to the night before, the two teams began to settle down on the defensive side of the puck, and the Bears took a 1-0 lead into the intermission. Shots were even at 10-10 after one period, but Holtby kept the Moose off the scoreboard.

The second period started with the Moose on the powerplay, but the Herd couldn't solve Holtby. Two consecutive penalties to Sergei Shirokov and Michael Grabner just 27 seconds apart gave the Bears a five-on-three opportunity for over a minute and a half. Schneider made some key saves to keep the deficit to one goal, and the Moose were rewarded for killing off the penalties.

Shirokov emerged from the penalty box and rejoined the play in the Moose zone, but he didn't stay long. Mike Keane picked up a loose puck and banked it off the left boards out into the neutral zone where the speedy Shirokov gained control. Breaking in all alone from the left wing, Shirokov went forehand-backhand on the deke and found an opening through Holtby's five-hole to score the shorthanded goal. Shirokov's 13th goal of the season pulled Manitoba even at 1-1 at the 5:14 mark of the second period.

Manitoba poured on the pressure after the momentum swing, and Holtby began to see shots regularly. The pressure finally got to Hershey at 15:24 of the second period. With Guillaume Desbiens coming down the left wing against Hershey's Chris Bourque, Desbiens leaned in and threw the puck from the corner to the front of the net with one hand on his stick as Bourque finished his check. Marco Rosa had a step on John Carlson, and the Moose centerman made no mistake as he tipped the centering pass just past Holtby at the right post. Rosa's eighth goal of the season put the home side up 2-1. With twenty minutes to play, the Moose needed a big effort against the league's top team.

Hershey used the intermission time to refocus, and they came out flying. Just 1:20 in, the tied the game up. Mathieu Perreault won a puck battle against Brian Salcido in the right corner and skated out towards Schneider. With both the goaltender and defenceman Travis Ramsey watching Perreault, no one picked up Chris Bourque sneaking in on the backdoor. Perreault flipped the puck to the Hershey sniper, and Bourque buried it over a sprawling Schneider for his ninth of the season and a 2-2 game.

Both teams picked up the pace again as they looked for the win. It took over fifteen minutes, but Hershey finally pulled ahead. Boyd Kane feathered a pass over to Kyle Wilson as Wilson crossed into the Moose zone. A stumble by defenceman Nolan Baumgartner allowed Wilson to gain a step on the Moose rearguard, and Wilson drove the net hard. Wilson roofed the puck from in close as Schneider went down, and the Bears jumped out to a 3-2 lead on Wilson's 11th goal of the season.

Shortly afterwards, the Hershey bench was assessed a bench minor, and Boyd Kane was given a ten-minute misconduct and tossed from the game under Rules 75.4 and 75.5. According to the rulebook, Rule 75.4 states that a misconduct is given when any player or goalkeeper persists in using obscene, profane or abusive language directed towards any person after being assessed a minor or bench minor penalty. Rule 75.5 states that a game misconduct is given when "a player or goalkeeper persists in any course of conduct for which he was previously assessed a misconduct penalty". I'm not sure what Kane was unhappy about, but he didn't do any favors for referee Kyle Rehman.

With the Moose on the powerplay to finish the game, they had several good opportunities, but Braden Holtby was equal to the task. When the final horn sounded, the Bears took the victory by the 3-2 score. With the loss in regulation, the Moose drop to 21-15-4-1 on the season.

Back to the Drawing Board

For the first time in the regular season, the Moose headed west to British Columbia to face the Abbotsford Heat on Tuesday night as part of a two-game set against their division rivals. Having only collected one point on the weekend, the Moose needed to pick up a few points against the Heat while stopping the Heat's four-game winning streak. A full house of 7046 was out in Abbotsford to see the Herd play the Heat with the crowd split between Heat supporters and Canuck fans. Cory Schneider got the start for the Moose while Matt Keetley was between the pipes for the Heat.

Listening to this game on CJOB with Moose play-by-play man Brian Munz, it sounded like the game started with opportunities at both ends of the ice - a sign that both teams are playing with confidence. Neither side could find the twine early on, but this game had all the signs of a "last goal wins" game. I apologize for the lack of details on this game, but I didn't have a video feed last night nor was I able to travel to Abbotsford for the game. I know - weak effort on my part.

David Van Der Gulik ripped home a slapshot at 12:56 to give Abbotsford a 1-0 lead midway through the first. JD Watt made it 2-0 four minutes later when he opted to keep on a two-on-one and fired it low blocker-side on Schneider. Despite the chances that the Moose had, Keetley kept the Herd off the scoreboard after one period of play.

The second period saw the Moose powerplay come to life. Eric Walsky netted his second goal of the season off his own rebound at 5:01 with the man-advantage, and the Moose were within one goal at 2-1.

Guillaume Desbiens and JD Watt decided to settle their differences the old-fashioned way just ten seconds after the face-off, and the two men were sent to the penalty box with major penalties.

Less than two minutes later, Marco Rosa banged in his ninth goal of the season. Lawrence Nycholat drew the assist as his shot rattled off the end boards, and Rosa slapped the rebound over Keetley's leg. The Moose drew even at 2-2. For some bizarre reason, Leland Irving replaced Matt Keetley in the Abbotsford net after Rosa's goal. Personally, it sounded like Keetley was doing a good job in holding the Moose off the board, so I'm not sure why the change was made.

Former Moose Jason Jaffray continued to haunt his former team. At the 16:29 mark, Jaffray beat Schneider through the five-hole for his 15th goal of the season after making his way to the front of the net. Abbotsford was back on top with a 3-2 lead, and they carried that lead into the second intermission.

The third period saw more hitting as the two teams looked to put more pucks in the net. However, the rough stuff caught up to Abbotsford at the 9:25 mark when they were whistled for an extra roughing penalty. Brian Salcido was sent off for the Moose, but both Cam Cunning and JD Watt were given roughing minors for Abbotsford.

On the powerplay, Mathieu Schneider fed a great pass to Marco Rosa who was open in the slot. The Moose centerman made no mistake as he wired his tenth goal of the season over Irving on the powerplay, and the Moose tied the game at 3-3. The crashing and banging being done by both teams carried right through the rest of the third period, but neither team could muster the winning goal. The final horn after sixty minutes with a 3-3 tie meant we had extra time!

The extra time didn't last long. Lawrence Nycholat's blast from the top of the face-off circle just 39 seconds into overtime gave the Moose the two points they needed. With the overtime victory, the Moose push their record to 22-15-4-1.

Wrapping Up the Week

The Moose lost two close games to Hershey, but there is no reason to suggest that they can't run with the big dogs in the AHL. What may have hurt the Moose in the second game of the series with Hershey is their wanting to sit on a lead. No lead is safe against the AHL's highest-scoring and top-defensive team, so the Moose should have taken it right to the Bears in the third period of Saturday's game.

The game against Abbotsford was a good rebound for the squad. Again, and I can't stress this enough, games against divisional opponents are must-win games. By winning last night's game, Manitoba opened a three-point cushion on the Heat and leap-frogged the idle Rochester Americans. If the Moose can pick up another two points tonight in BC, it will go a long way in putting them back into the upper echelon of AHL teams.

One Man Goes Down, Another Man Is Lost

It was a tough week for one Moose defender, while a Moose regular moved into the injury bay with a new injury.
  • Daren Machesney - knee injury. Machesney tweaked his knee during practice, but shouldn't be out long. He's hopeful for next weekend's clash with the Milwaukee Admirals.
  • Michael Funk - concussion. As I had suggested last week, Funk's symptoms were not diminishing, so it may be time to shut down his season to be safe. And that's exactly what the Moose blueliner did on Thursday. Honestly, there's no reason to gamble with his life at age 23. Hopefully, he'll return next season as he really began to shine in his 19 games.
Musical Locker Room Stalls

The Moose welcomed a number of players this week, and then said good-bye to a few of them as the revolving door on the locker room continued to spin.
  • Jimmy Sharrow - signed and released from PTO. Sharrow was brought in on an emergency basis when the Moose were down to five rearguards. Sharrow has played parts of seasons with the Moose before, and will head back to the ECHL's Victoria Salmon Kings.
  • Stefan Drew - signed to Amateur Tryout contract. Drew was picked up from the Springfield 98s of the Manitoba East Hockey League where he had been plying his trade. The 24 year-old had been in Moose training camp earlier this season, so he is on the radar. Once Machesney is back from his injury, Drew will most likely be released.
  • Evan Oberg - recalled and re-assigned by the Canucks. Oberg's call-up left the Moose slightly shorthanded for their game with Hershey, but he was returned to the Herd on Sunday.
  • Taylor Ellington - recalled from Victoria. Ellington has spent a few games with Manitoba, and appears that he could be a very serviceable seventh defenceman if the Moose decide to keep him around.
Like a Moose in a Chat Room

Nolan Baumgartner was the featured guest on Monday in the AHL Chat Room. He spoke about his time in Portland, Maine, why he came back to Manitoba, why he likes playing here, the impact that Mike Keane has had on him, and how Sergei Shirokov is adapting to North American life. You can read the full transcript here of his time in the chat room.

Personally, I appreciate when a player says that the fans and organization are the reasons for him choosing to play in a city. It speaks volumes about the franchise and its fans, and Baumgartner really said some nice things about the Moose in his chat.

Always Wanting More

The Moose battle the Heat again tonight in Abbotsford, and it goes without saying about the importance of a victory tonight. Manitoba is one point ahead of third-place Rochester, but the Amerks have a couple of games in hand. Hamilton has opened a nine-point lead over Manitoba, but the Moose need only to worry about themselves right now.

The upcoming weekend has the Milwaukee Admirals visiting the Moose at MTS Centre. Milwaukee is currently tied for the lead in the West Division with a 22-13-1-5 record. Cal O'Reilly, currently with the NHL's Nashville Predators, leads the team in scoring with nine goals and 26 assists. Mark Dekanich and Chet Pickard are solid goaltenders, but haven't been outstanding. However, the Admirals can score in bunches, so the Moose will have to be defensively solid again.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!s

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