We're one week into the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, and Antler Banter is still believing in green! The Hamilton Bulldogs and Manitoba Moose have battled through four games - two in each team's home arena - and we find ourselves staring down Game Five on Friday night. That means a sweep is out of the question for either team, but it also means that the heavily-favoured Bulldogs have been held at bay by the plucky Moose to a degree. We'll look at last week's "Keys To Victory", examine and expand on those this week, and look at the rest of the series. Your Manitoba Moose Calder Cup Playoff news and information can be found on the Moose website. If you're interested in attending a Manitoba Moose Calder Cup Playoff game, please click here for seating information, ticket pricing, and availability. Keep believing in green as we check out this week's Hardcore Hockey!
- Special Teams. If the Moose stay out of the penalty box, and can convert on a few powerplays of their own, Hamilton could find themselves in trouble. The Bulldogs don't take a lot of penalties, so the Moose have to make them pay when they do take a penalty.
The Moose have been pretty good with the man-advantage thus far. The Moose are 6-for-22 thus far in the series, clipping along at a 27.3% pace. The Moose haven't seen powerplay percentages like that since last season. However, The Dogs are scoring at a 22.2% pace as well, so the Moose need to tighten up on the penalty kill or need to stop taking penalties. Which leads me to...
- Discipline. This goes without saying when playing an offensive juggernaut like Hamilton. The Moose can't take dumb penalties, and need to be faster, smarter, and more disciplined when playing the puck. Anything after the whistle should be avoided entirely. The Bulldogs can score, so there is no reason to allow them additional chances to capitalize.
Continuing on that point above, the Moose players have to stop taking lazy penalties. Of the minor penalties called, the Moose have taken six interference penalties, five slashing penalties, four hooking penalties, and two too-many-men penalties. Interference is a bit of a subjective call for a referee, but the stick fouls, including two tripping calls and a cross-checking penalty, make up twelve minor penalties already. And two too-many-men penalties is far too many in four games. The Moose have to play smarter, especially if they want to continue in this series.
- Need A Blanket. If I were head coach Scott Arniel, Mike Keane would follow Brock Trotter around the ice like they were siamese twins. There's no secret that the majority of Hamilton's offence runs through Trotter, so I'd assign my best defensive forward to cover him. Keane has been in this role in his career many times, and the Moose captain may even be able to draw a few penalties if he can get Trotter off his game.
Trotter has three goals and one assist in four games, so the Moose have been keeping the most dangerous Bulldog in check. Where the Moose need to adjust is the pinching blueline. PK Subban has three goals and three assists, including the overtime game-winner in Game Four, so the Moose have to find a way to keep Subban in check. Mike Glumac's four goals have also been big, so a more focused defensive effort will certainly become paramount.
- Force Mistakes. The Moose have to score the first goal to have the Bulldogs change their strategy. As stated above, the Bulldog blueliners love to jump into the play, so putting them behind the eight-ball would force those defencemen to start pressing a little earlier. Defensive breakdowns will happen, and the Moose can look to take advantage of those chances.
The Moose have caught the Bulldogs pinching on occasion, and their efforts have been rewarded. The Moose must remain aggressive in their forecheck in trying to force turnovers while the Bulldogs break out of their zone, and they have to remain vigilant in their transition game to catch the Dogs' blueliners flat-footed. Thus far, the Moose have done well, but they need to continue this approach.
- Sacrifice Everything. The Bulldogs love to shoot the puck. The Moose play extremely defensively. The only answer is to block shots, block shots, and block more shots. There should be no shortage of bruises and contusions if the Moose put their bodies between the puck and Cory Schneider, but the Moose have to help their defencemen and Schneider by limiting shots and second chance opportunities. The best way to do that is to stop the puck from getting to the net. Sacrifice the body, Moose players. And get the ice packs ready.
There's not much else to say now. Being down 3-1 means that desperation hockey is a way of life, so the Herd had better be prepared to hurt, ache, and possibly bleed for their season. Throw the body with reckless abandon. Block shots like they are going out of style. Shoot like it's Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. Hold nothing back, and play with no regrets. In other words, make the ultimate sacrifice for you and your teammates. Otherwise, the golf courses are expecting you.
One of the things I'm always impressed with are the crowds in Winnipeg. There is definitely an electricity in the building when the fans pack MTS Centre for a Moose game, and the two home games thus far have been nothing short of incredible. Through two home dates thus far, the Moose have seen 15047 fans make their way through the turnstiles, averaging just short of 7525 fans per game.
Hamilton, on the other hand, has hosted two playoff games thus far, and has only seen 9314 fans make their way into Copps Coliseum. The majority of those fans - 5626 of them - came out to last Saturday's Game Two against the Moose.
I'm not sure why fans in Hamilton aren't going to see the Bulldogs play, considering that Toronto didn't qualify for the NHL Playoffs. There could be some people going to Ottawa and/or Buffalo to see those teams play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but 9300 fans in two games in one of the Canadian "NHL-ready" cities is, quite frankly, disappointing.
Winnipeg had a first-place team last season, and they set an attendance record in the 2009 Calder Cup Playoffs. The Bulldogs play in a larger arena, but play to smaller crowds than the fourth-place Moose this season.
Way to go, Moose fans! If there was any doubt as to which Canadian AHL franchise has the best fans, Moose fans certainly have put their stamp on AHL attendance figures over the last few seasons. This is why I love being a Manitoba Moose fan - big crowds, a great team, and excellent entertainment!
The Moose do have an uphill battle for the rest of this series. They are down 3-1 to the Bulldogs after four games, and will play at home on Friday before finishing the series' last two games in Hamilton. Certainly the battle will be long and hard, but all hope is not lost by this writer.
Jordan Schroeder, Kevin Clark, and Guillaume Desbiens have really clicked in the last couple of games. If I were head coach Scott Arniel, these guys would be out whenever I could send them over the boards. For as reliable as Marco Rosa and Sergei Shirokov have been, they need to start clicking with Dan Sexton in order for the Moose to have two legitimate scoring lines. One scoring line will not get it done in the playoffs against any team, let alone the powerful Bulldogs.
Cory Schneider has played well, but needs to come up with one of those outstanding games where it seems he's on another level. I realize that asking Schneider to pay the saviour for this team seems like the "same old, same old", but Schneider has to steal a game at least once in the next three outings. This would mean that the Moose have to start scoring again, but the last two games have yielded 11 goals against the Bulldogs - more than half of what they scored in eight games against the Dogs in the regular season.
All in all, a tough test awaits the Moose. Game Five should be their only priority at this point, and anyone looking past their next shift should be glued to the bench. Every shift matters now as the room for error is nil. I believe in green, though, and I'm expecting the Moose to head back to Hamilton for Game Six. DO IT!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!