We made it, readers. The end of the season is here, and the Moose have clinched a playoff spot in the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs! It wasn't easy, and it certainly seems like we deserve better, but the dogfight for first-place in the North Division came down to the last weekend as the Hamilton Bulldogs visited MTS Centre for two games that would determine which team would win the North Division. Make sure you head over to 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. Manitoba vs. Hamilton for the division title on this week's Hardcore Hockey!
Two games for all the marbles in the AHL's North Division, and the Moose faced off against one of their fiercest rivals in the Hamilton Bulldogs for North Division supremacy. If either team won both games, there was a pretty good certainty that that team would represent the North Division as the top seed. With that at stake, the Moose sent Eddie Lack to the crease while Hamilton came back with Moose stopper Drew MacIntyre.
It was a yin and yang night for the Moose special teams. The normally-reliable penalty killing unit was victimized for two goals over three shorthanded situations while the normally-anemic powerplay struck twice on five chances with the man-advantage. While the tables turned for the Moose special teams from the normal scenario, it's nice to see the powerplay units notching a couple through Marco Rosa and Shawn Weller. Well done, lads!
Much like the last game, the Moose were unable to contain Hamilton's line of Nigel Dawes, Aaron Palushaj, and Dustin Boyd on Saturday. There's no doubt that this is one of the AHL's most explosive lines, and their work resulted in four goals (including two on the powerplay), four assists, an amazing 19 shots, and a +3 rating for the night! If Manitoba wants any chance at earning home-ice advantage in their opening round of the playoffs, they have to find a way to shut down this line tomorrow. If they somehow meet Hamilton in the playoffs, this line could end the Moose's chances in a hurry.
As stated in the paragraph above, the Bulldogs got four goals from one line, and added a couple more to set the Moose back with a 6-3 loss. Aaron Palushaj equalled the Moose's goal total on his own with a hat trick before adding an assist of his own to help Hamilton's cause. The loss also ended Manitoba's dreams of winning the North Division crown as Hamilton officially owned the tie-breaker after this game. And the loss bumped Manitoba's record to 43-29-7.
If there's one thing that the Moose can salvage after losing to the Bulldogs the night before, it's the fact that home-ice advantage was still on the line for the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. The math is simple: win, and home-ice advantage is yours. Lose, and the Moose would probably be looking at traveling to Cleveland, Ohio for the first two games of the playoffs. Tyler Weiman got the start for the Moose while Drew MacIntyre was back in the nets for the Bulldogs.
If there was one bright spot, Yann Sauvé played pretty well in the final game of the season. Sauvé wasn't spectacular, but he chipped in with an assist, added a +1 rating, and scrapped Hamilton's Brendon Nash after Nash earned himself a boarding penalty after throwing a rather cheap hit. Overall, a pretty good evening overall. Sauvé definitely played well enough to earn some kudos, and any mistakes he made were not of the egregious variety that resulted in goals against. And that's a plus for sure.
From what we've seen over these last two games, it appears the Moose have a couple of major issues going into the playoffs. Both of these issues could be their downfall if they don't right the ship in a hurry.
First, the offence has dried up. I'm not sure why the Moose can't score when they outshoot their opponents, but the Moose launched 33 shots against MacIntyre and only one got past him. This is going to be an issue in the playoffs.
Secondly, this team, while showing some moxie at times, really needs to learn how to play "firehouse hockey". The Moose yapped about how the energy would be high and the games would be intense, but the chips were down and the Moose folded once again this weekend. If not for a late goal tonight, the Bulldogs would have shut out the Moose in the final game of the season. This team needs to learn how to bring the energy and excitement.
Closing out the season with a pair of losses to a divisional rival stung, but the real pain set in when Lake Erie vaulted ahead of the Moose into second-place in the AHL North Division. Tyler Weiman played well, but the Moose came up short once again against Hamilton, falling in a 3-1 loss. The loss ended Manitoba's season with a record of 43-30-7.
Cleveland may rock in Drew Carey's eyes, but Manitoba has to bring a much better effort than what was seen down the stretch in order to rock Lake Erie. Goals have to be earned when facing former NHL goaltenders Jason Bacashihua and John Grahame. The Monsters have shown all season long that they won't be pushed around and will not back down, so there will be work for the Moose to do.
Oh, and the Colorado Avalanche were eliminated from the NHL Playoffs some time ago, so expect some big-league help for the Monsters. This series should be a good character builder for the Moose, and should get them ready for Hamilton or Oklahoma City if they prevail over Lake Erie.
The season series between the Moose and Monsters was split 2-2. Lake Erie outscored the Moose by a 12-11 margin. For all intents and purposes, this looks like a very even series at the outset. If I were a betting man, though, I'd give Manitoba the edge through experience.
This is the first time that the Lake Erie Monsters have attended the postseason dance in their short history, and their young players may not have the seasoning needed to succeed in the Calder Cup Playoffs. John Grahame certainly has seen his share of playoff success through his NHL career, but there aren't a lot of players on the Monsters roster that have played in the postseason. This lack of experience in high-pressure games could be the difference between the Moose and Monsters.
The Moose boast several players who have been key in AHL and NHL playoff runs. Nolan Baumgartner, Jason Jaffray, Rick Rypien, Alex Bolduc, and Sergei Shirokov - to name a few - have been through a deep Moose playoff run and some NHL playoff action. Marco Rosa was part of several runs with the Houston Aeros before joining the Moose. There is a clear experience factor that the Moose have, and this factor cannot be discounted when talking about a playoff run.
When it comes down to it, there is one thing the Moose must remember: every game, every period, and every shift has purpose. Whether a player scores a goal, blocks a shot, grinds out shift where he has cycled for three minutes straight, or simply checks like a demon, every shift has to have purpose. Bear down, and DO IT!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!