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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Antler Banter: Volume 28

It's the first edition of Antler Banter as we enter the Calder Cup Playoffs, and, as seen in the graphic to the left, the Moose are locking antlers with the Monsters from Lake Erie. These two teams were very similar in their records over the course of the season and against each other, so I was expecting a very close series between these two AHL clubs. The Moose would open the playoffs on the road after finishing in third-place in the AHL North Division, so it was off to Cleveland for a pair of games before returning home for three. Playoff hockey always brings out the best in players and fans, so let's not waste any time getting to the action! Stop by the Moose website for all your Manitoba Moose playoff news and Calder Cup information. If you're interested in attending a Manitoba Moose playoff game, please click here for seating information, ticket pricing, and availability. The Moose and Monsters kick off their opening round Calder Cup Playoff series in this week's Hardcore Hockey!

Mauled In The Second Period

There was lots of hope that the Moose could recover after faltering on the last weekend in the regular season with two losses to the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Moose seemed to talk the talk as they prepared to battle the Monsters, so there were lots of reasons to think that the Moose were going in with some resolve and determination to grab a hold of this series on the road. Eddie Lack would start his first AHL playoff game while the Monsters opted for Jason Bacashihua in their nets to start the series.

I have harped on this aspect of the Moose's game all season long, and I have made every indication that a playoff series can be won and lost on special teams, but it seems the Moose powerplay wants to hear none of this. Tonight was a prime example in not capitalizing on opportunities and playing soft with the man-advantage. And it hurt the Moose in a big way.

With the Moose leading 2-1 early in the second period, they were handed a glorious opportunity to tighten the noose on the necks of the Monsters in Game One as they went to the powerplay just 1:23 into the second frame. Instead, the Moose powerplay comes out and handles the puck like a grenade. Justin Mercier poked the puck away from the Moose defenders, and was off to the races as he outskated both Mark Flood and Nolan Baumgartner down the ice for a shorthanded breakaway. A deke and a backhander later, and the Monsters have tied the game 2-2 with a shorthanded, momentum-swinging goal.

What is it about the Moose powerplay this season in that they seem to give up as many goals as they score? If you needed a "TSN Turning Point" in this game, the shorthanded goal was it. After Lake Erie notched that goal, it was all Monsters for the remainder of the second period as they tallied three times in the period. I'll say it again for the umpteenth time: SPECIAL TEAMS WIN AND LOSE PLAYOFF SERIES. If this powerplay ineptitude continues for the Moose, it will be a very short series.

If there was one standout in this game, the nod has to go to Marco Rosa who has been the heart and soul of this team down the stretch. He continued his solid play tonight as he scored two goals, added two helpers, had three shots, and finished the night with a +1 rating. In a game where it just seemed like the Moose were constantly battling the puck and trying to play catch-up, Rosa was the beacon of light that seemed to play much better when the pressure was on. He just needs 21 other men to do that.

I'm not going to beat a dead horse, but the Moose won the first period and tied the third period, but were blown out in the second period. After all was said and done, the Lake Erie Monsters took Game One of this series by a 6-4 score. It wasn't pretty for Lake Erie, but they got the job done in the second period with three goals.

Just for the record, the Moose powerplay was oh-fer-four in this game. If you ask me, someone needs to light a fire under the collective rear ends of this group soon. Or it will be lights-out before the Moose know it.

Split For Home

The Moose needed a win to earn a split with Lake Erie, especially coming home for three games. While the effort on Saturday was there, it is clear that the small gaffes made by the Moose must be cleaned up to prevent the Monsters from jumping ahead 2-0 in the series. Lake Erie proved that they are willing to wait for Manitoba to make mistakes, and they capitalized in Game One where they could. After having watched his rookie goalie get shelled, head coach Claude Noel went with former Monster Tyler Weiman between the pipes in Game Two. The Monsters also made a change as they gave John Grahame the start in this one.

This game was all about one line: Murray-Volpatti-Rypien. If you needed to define an energy line, these guys came to play tonight with a purpose. They hustled, they made life difficult for the Monsters, and they provided an offensive spark when the Moose needed it. In short, Pierre McGuire would call these guys "monsters" against the Monsters.

Aaron Volpatti picked himself up a goal on his only shot on the afternoon, added a key helper, and finished the game with a +2 rating. For your energy/checking line guys, that's a great afternoon at the office. Make no mistake here: the Moose may have the most talented checking line in the AHL right now, and these guys put on a show this afternoon. Volpatti, though, was the showstopper, and his contributions were the difference.

Garth Murray earned himself an assist on Volpatti's first period goal, and finished the afternoon with a +2 rating. Murray should also get credit for working his tail off on a couple of penalty kill situations. He was on the ice for the Lake Erie powerplay goal, but his efforts in killing off the other three man-advantage situations can't be overlooked. Murray has really become a dependable workhorse for this team, and he deserves some kudos for that effort.

Rick Rypien finished the game with one goal, and it was a big one. His afternoon had him recording four shots and a +2 rating, but that fourth and final shot was the most important shot of the day. Rypien's first goal of the playoffs came at 8:03 of the extra frame on a pass from Aaron Volpatti, and his redirection found the back of the net for the game-winning overtime goal! While there was some controversy as the Monsters felt Rypien redirected the puck in with his skate, referees Chris Ciamaga and Tim Mayer would have none of it and allowed the goal to stand.

Marco Rosa scored his third goal of the series in this game, and Tyler Weiman played a very good game in his start to earn the 3-2 overtime win. Manitoba's energy line had a huge impact in this game, and it was great to see the grinders on this team being rewarded for the work. With the split, the series shifts back to Manitoba for the next three games. Could the Moose do the impossible and win three in a row on home ice to close out this series?

And since we're keeping a record of special teams, the Moose went oh-fer-three tonight with the man-advantage. That's oh-fer-seven in two games. Perhaps the powerplay units need to be tazered to be woken up.

Frustrating Display

With the Moose looking to gain control of the series on home ice, there was a sense of electricity in the air as the fans poured into MTS Centre for Game Three of the North Division Semi-Final. While the powerplay has been absent through the first two games, Manitoba has shown that they can score five-on-five, so they just needed to keep the powerplay off the ice. Of course, I am joking about this, but they really do need the powerplay to come through against the Monsters. Tyler Weiman and John Grahame squared off in a rematch of Game Two goalies on Tuesday night.

The Moose came out with a sense of determination, pinning Lake Erie deep in their own zone in the first minute. This aggressive forecheck paid off on their first shot as Sergei Shirokov beat Grahame high after faking the defender with a slapshot before finding open ice in the slot for his wrister. Shirokov had the fans on their feet early on, and it felt like this mihgt be the game where Manitoba exerted their dominance.

Except they forgot to tell John Grahame about this plan. Grahame was outstanding after giving up a goal on his first shot, stopping the next 39 Moose shots. At the final buzzer, there was no doubt who the first star of the game was, and the former NHL netminder proved that he still has the stuff to compete at the game's highest level with his performance tonight.

Let's put the blame squarely where it belongs in not only this game, but this series thus far. Whoever is coaching the Moose powerplay should be searching through the classifieds because he will be out of a job shortly if this futility continues. The Moose drew eight man-advantage situations tonight and came away with nothing.

Nada. Zilch. Zero. Squat. Nil. Any other word that you can think of to represent nothing.

Part of this can be attributed to the solid goaltending of John Grahame on this night, but there is no reason why the Moose powerplay is a combined oh-fer-15 in this series at this point. That's absolutely pathetic, and it's killing the Moose. I said it above, but I'll say it again: SPECIAL TEAMS WIN AND LOSE PLAYOFF SERIES. Write it down, kids, because if the Moose lose this series, they can look at one stat and know why they're golfing before the calendar turns to the month of May.

Grahame's performance was incredible as he stopped 39 of 40 shots in a 2-1 Lake Erie victory after giving up the Shirokov goal just over one minute in. The Moose powerplay, thanks to their aforementioned futility, should just begin to decline powerplay opportunities because they did nothing but waste 16 minutes of time in this game. Lake Erie takes a 2-1 series lead after their victory on Tuesday, and it is an uphill battle for the Moose at this point.

Need Three Of Four

The Moose have a big task in front of them as they need to win three of the next four games. Against a team like Lake Erie, it certainly won't be easy, and that task is compounded by the fact that the powerplay units are asleep at the wheel.

Personally, they have to get the Lake Erie penalty killers moving. Open up lanes. Cut through the box. Rotate point men. Change the point of attack from the point to the wing. Do something to change the look and move the box to create openings. The Moose powerplay is getting shots, but they are being smothered by the Monsters' goaltenders.

I still have faith despite my somewhat negative view on these three games, and I'm not counting the Moose out. Again, playoff experience is vital when it comes to dealing with the pressure of winning, and this Moose squad is flush with experience. Buckle down and DO IT, Moose, before it's too late.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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