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Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Antler Banter: Volume 23

Antler Banter is back with five games to review this week as the Moose finished up their road trip and returned home to play the AHL's best. The Moose had a pair of games against the Houston Aeros and a single game against the San Antonio Rampage as they closed out their West Division swing before returning to the comfy confines of MTS Centre where they would play the AHL-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Undoubtedly, this was a week of tests, so let's get to the action. Before we do, stop by the Moose website for all your Manitoba Moose news and information. If you're interested in attending a Manitoba Moose game, please click here for seating information, ticket pricing, and availability. The Moose tear through Texas and try to sink the Penguins in this week's Hardcore Hockey!

Flying High Against The Aeros

Closing out the road trip witha few wins would be key for the Moose to maintain their lofty position atop the AHL North Division. Standing in their way was the Houston Aeros, a team that the Moose have a long history with back to their IHL days. The Moose held a 2-0 record against the Aeros after two wins against the Houston squad way back in December, so there was hope that the Moose could continue their winning ways against the Aeros. Manitoba called upon Eddie Lack to defend their net while Houston sent Matt Hackett to face the Herd.

This one was a low-scoring affair, but I want to point out that the Moose are notorious for starting fairly slow in games. This game was entirely different as the Moose hit the ground running as they fired 18 shots on Matt Hackett in the first frame. The best part of those 18 shots? Mario Bliznak's tenth goal of the season at 14:46 of the first period. If the Moose can put up half of their shot total in the first period every game, they'll put a lot of teams in big holes before the first intermission.

Eddie Lack was outstanding again in this game, and is really making a name for himself in the AHL. A powerplay goal midway through the third period ended his shutout bid, but the Moose netminder stopped 32 of 33 shots that he faced over 65 minutes. He then stopped three of four shots in the shootout. If Lack is alright with playing behind Luongo and Schneider in the pecking order, Manitoba will have a bright goaltending future for a long, long time.

It took the breakaway contest to decide this one, but Jordan Schroeder and Joel Perrault gave the Moose a 2-1 win in the skills competition and a 2-1 victory in the game. Again, Lack was outstanding in the victory, and it really speaks volumes as to how good this young man is at his job. With the victory, the Moose improve to 36-23-6 on the season!

Stampeding The Rampage

The Moose and Rampage met up in San Antonio for the fourth time this season. The Moose owned a 1-1-1 record in those three games, so they were looking to close out their season series with the Rampage in style with a win. Eddie Lack got the call for the Moose once again, and he squared off against San Antonio's Matt Climie. Climie, though, wouldn't last long as he was pulled after two goals on four shots, giving way to Joe Fallon to battle the Herd.

Bill Sweatt had himself a good night as he potted a couple of goals for the Moose. In recording his 16th and 17th goals of the season, Sweatt finished the game with three shots, two penalty minutes, and a +2 rating - a solid evening for any player. Sweatt has been a consistent performer all season long, and he certainly has been a bright spot for the Moose this season.

If there was one negative on the night, it was the Moose powerplay once again. The Herd had seven opportunities with the man-advantage, but converted on exactly zero of them. I cannot stress this enough: the powerplay must be better as the Moose approach the playoffs. A short series can come down to powerplay opportunities, and taking advantages of these opportunities is paramount, especially in the playoffs. To make matters worse, the powerplay units gave up another shorthanded goal. This must change in a hurry. And before the playoffs arrive.

While I seem to call out the powerplay often, even-strength scoring wasn't a problem on this night as six different Moose players tallied goals, and the Moose skated to the 7-2 victory. After standing in the spotlight a number of times on his own, it was nice to see Eddie Lack getting a pile of goals to work with in a game. With the victory, the Moose move to 37-23-6 on the campaign!

Win One, Lose One

The Moose played their third game in three nights once again on Sunday as they traveled back down the highway to Houston to face the Aeros once more. This was the eleventh straight road game that the Moose played over the last three weeks, so there might have been some looking past this game as the Moose looked to get back to MTS Centre. Tyler Weiman got the call for the Moose in this game while Matt Hackett took another shot at beating the Moose.

Maybe less is more for the Moose powerplay? The Herd's man-advantage lines only had three opportunities to play as a unit in this game, but they made it count as Mario Bliznak scored a first-period powerplay goal just nine seconds into the man-advantage. The powerplay also refused to give up a goal on this evening, so there was even more to be happy about. Perhaps the coaching staff had a discussion with the powerplay units about playing better?

After having a big night against San Antonio, Bill Sweatt turned in a pretty poor performance against the Aeros. No points, no shots recorded, and a -4 rating makes for a polar opposite night at the office for Sweatt. While two of those minuses came while the Moose had no one defending the net, Sweatt still needs to show up on the scoresheet in some way - a shot, a goal or an assist, a positive rating. None of these were produced, and that's not what is expected of Sweatt.

While it looked like the Moose might take another low-scoring game off the Aeros after leading 1-0 through two periods, the house of cards came crashing down in the third period. Houston scored four times in eight minutes to make it a 4-2 game. Manitoba scored with just over five minutes to go to make it 4-3, but two empty-net goals salted the game away for Houston. Houston's shot total was 13-15-17 through the three periods for 45 shots total, so there was a significant difference in aggressiveness between these two teams on Sunday. The 6-3 loss at the hands of the Aeros moves Manitoba's record to 37-24-6.

Moose Snowed Over By Penguins

I was very excited to catch this game as I really thought this game would be an excellent litmus test as to how the Moose may fare against the Eastern Conference's best if they were to make the Calder Cup Final once again. The Penguins entered the game with an AHL-best 46-18-1 record, so there some electricity in the air as the Moose and Penguins squared off. Eddie Lack was back between the pipes for the Moose while the Penguins opted to go with John Curry in this first of two games on Tuesday night.

The Moose penalty killing units were at their best on Tuesday as they held the Penguins off the board while on the powerplay. The Penguins had five opportunities, and all five were successfully killed off by the Moose. Again, the penalty killing units are showing the mettle needed in the playoffs, and are clearly one of the best teams while playing with four players on the ice. Another solid night at the office for the Moose PK units!

The Moose blueline really deserves some credit for keeping the Moose in this game for as long as they did. The Penguins outshot the Moose by a large margin in each period, but the efforts by Eddie Lack and the Moose defenders played a large part in keeping the Penguins at bay. This has to make the coaching staff happy as the blueline weathered the storm as best they could.

Unfortunately, weathering the storm didn't end with happiness. The Penguins put on a clinic in how to play defence, keeping the Moose snipers on the outside for most of the night while clearing rebounds with authority. The Moose only managed 23 shots on Curry and the majority of those were not of the dangerous variety. In the end, the Penguins took the first game off the Moose by a 2-0 score. The Moose fall to 37-25-6 after being shutout.

Pummeled By Penguins

I don't normally post Wednesday night games on the current Antler Banter Wednesday, but I had the chance to see the Penguins and Moose battle for the second straight night, and I couldn't pass up that opportunity. After watching the Penguins control most of the game the night before, I was interested in seeing how the Moose would react after being shutout against the AHL's best. Eddie Lack and John Curry squared off for the second straight night, but Brad Thiessen would finish the game for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

It's good to see Joel Perrault back on the scoresheet. Perrault used a powerplay to notch his first goal in 13 games, and the crafty centerman had his fourth goal of the season off a gorgeous drop pass from Cody Hodgson. Seeing these two connect on the powerplay reminded me of their great play in December when they were together on the man-advantage. Here's hoping that the chemistry returns between these two, especially for the powerplay's sake.

The Moose certainly can run with the Penguins. There's no doubt that they held the Penguins in check for 50 minutes on Wednesday, but a couple of bad plays gave the Penguins all they needed to capitalize in this game. A turnover in their own zone led to the first goal. A deflection off a Moose player led to the second goal. A loose puck in the slot led to the third Penguins goal. An undisciplined hit by Ryan Parent put the Moose down one body, and the Penguins capitalized again. In less than five minutes, the Penguins put four pucks into the Moose net. That's not the kind of third-period play you want to see from your team.

Perrault's goal looked like it might hold water, but those four goals sunk the Moose very quickly. Eddie Lack stopped 39 of 43 shots, but he can't be expected to take care of the entire Moose zone. It looked like the Moose may have solved the Penguins through the fifty minutes they led, but the Penguins showed patience, resiliency, and a killer instinct. As for the goaltending change, I'm not sure why Thiessen came in after the opening period, but he kept the Moose off the scoresheet in stopping all 17 shots he faced as the Penguins downed the Moose by a 4-1 score. With the loss, the Moose drop to 37-26-6 on the season.

Bringing Texas To Manitoba

The Moose have a bit of a reprieve this week as they only have two games as they enter the weekend. The Texas Stars roll into town as the visitors, and are looking to catch their red-hot state rivals in the Houston Aeros in the West Division. There are a number of former Manitoba Moose players currently on the Stars' roster, so it might feel like a reunion for the players. Well, at least until the puck drops.

The Moose are battling two charging teams below them. The Lake Erie Monsters and Grand Rapids Griffins have overtaken the Hamilton Bulldogs, and now sit in second and third in the North Division, respectively. The Moose need to put up four points against Texas to hold onto their first-place standing. Otherwise, they might be looking up at one of these teams by the time the weekend is over.

The Moose and Stars split the games in Texas, so there is a need for the Moose to step on the gas when they face the Stars this weekend. After stumbling against the Penguins, the Moose have to start racking up the wins to help them hold onto to first place. DO IT!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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