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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Antler Banter: Volume 30

The Moose begin an epic journey into Round Two of the 2011 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs against their long-time North Division nemeses in the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Moose, having battled past the Lake Erie Monsters after falling behind 3-1 in the opening round series, will look to continue their winning streak against the Bulldogs as the second round begins. Do the Moose have the muscle and scoring to take down the North Division's top team? Can they exorcise their personal demons in facing the Bulldogs? Don't forget to 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 Bulldogs renew acquaintances and breed contempt for one another in this week's Hardcore Hockey!

Bitten First

The Moose and Bulldogs began their series in Hamilton on Thursday, and there was clearly no love lost between these two teams. Manitoba, having just played a long seven-game series with Lake Erie, may have come into this game tired, but there would be no sympathy given by the Bulldogs. The two most successful Canadian AHL franchises clashed with Manitoba sending Eddie Lack to the blue paint while Hamilton had Drew MacIntyre between the pipes.

I discussed a couple of ways that Manitoba can beat Hamilton in last week's Antler Banter, and one of those ways was to stay out of the penalty box. Game One was a clear example of why steering clear of the sin bin is important. While Hamilton finished the night just 2-for-10 on the powerplay, that is still far too many chances for the Bulldogs to have with the man-advantage. The Moose spent just under a period killing penalties, and there's no doubt that if this continues, Hamilton will close out this series in a hurry. The Moose have to be more disciplined, and it starts by skating harder and working harder than the Bulldogs.

While it's hard to narrow down goals to just one player, especially when on the penalty kill, it was disappointing to see Yann Sauvé's number come up three times on three separate Hamilton goals. Sauvé has been playing very good hockey in terms of shutting down the opposing forwards, and the Moose will need him to continue to play solid defensive hockey as this series progresses. Sauvé finished the night with a -2 rating, but was on the ice for one of Hamilton's powerplay goals. That kind of effort has to improve.

Once again, the powerplay unit for the Moose seem more like a liability than a savior as this series begins. They finished the night oh-fer-five with the man-advantage, and surrendered yet another shorthanded goal! What is with this unit's inability to put the puck in the opposition's net and keep it out of their own net? Whatever changes the Moose made in the Lake Erie series need to be replicated in this series because Hamilton can be beat, but the Moose will need their powerplay unit to come alive to do so.

The Moose opened the scoring in this series, but never found the net again in Game One as the Hamilton Bulldogs downed the Moose by a 4-1 score to take the early lead in the series. Lack stopped 33 shots, but the Moose gave up far too many chances to really deserve the win in this one. Game Two will go Sunday night, and the Moose will look for the split before returning home.

Hamilton Takes Two

After being seriously undisciplined in Game One, there had to be a focus on controlling emotions and being more disciplined as the Moose and Bulldogs met for Game Two on Sunday. Hamilton's top line of Dawes, Palushaj, and Boyd finished the night with a pair of goals and three assists, so the Moose will have to be more cognizant of these men when they are on the ice as well. Both Hamilton and Manitoba stuck with the same goaltenders as MacIntyre started for the Bulldogs and the Moose went back to Lack.

Full credit to defenceman Chris Tanev for his solid game in Game Two of the North Division Final. Tanev had a goal and an assist and finished the night with a +2 rating. It's not often that one of the most defensively-responsible guys on the roster leads the team in scoring for the night, but Tanev made the most of his chances on the ice. He wasn't on the ice for any of the Hamilton goals either, so that's a very good game for Tanev, and the Moose need more of these types of games from the other men on the gamesheet.

The top line of Jaffray, Rosa, and Shirokov needs to step up for Manitoba. The trio finished their night with no points, a mere five shots, and a -5 rating. While one of those goals the trio was on the ice for was the empty-netter, it still doesn't make up for the lack of production seen from these three offensive players. Head coach Claude Noel will have to see what he can do because Hamilton is not making life easy for the best Moose players. And these three men need to start working harder than they have been if they want to shed their Bulldog shadows.

The Moose had the doors blown off them in shots by the time the first intermission rolled around, but still managed to keep the score even at 1-1. However, the Bulldogs added three more goals before a late tally by Tanev brought the score to 4-2. The Bulldogs captured both games at home, and the pressure is clearly on the Moose as they return to MTS Centre trailing 2-0 in the series.

Moose Powerplay Makes Difference

It's a theme that Antler Banter has been preaching since the Calder Cup Playoffs have started, but it's amazing how many teams win playoff games when their powerplay is clicking. The Moose hadn't had that aspect of their game working since the playoffs began, but you felt the energy in the building as Game Three at MTS Centre got underway. Eddie Lack and Drew MacIntyre drew the goaltending assignments again in this one.

Manitoba's powerplay was in the building in full force on Tuesday night, and they made a definite impact on the game in a positive way for the Moose. The Moose extra-man unit went 2-for-3, scoring the third and fourth goals of the game for the Moose. This put Hamilton in a hole, and they had work their tails off to try and get out of it against the Moose five-man unit. If the powerplay units can continue this play in future games, series will become much easier to win.

Kudos to Marco Rosa who scored one of the powerplay goals and assisted on the other. Rosa, if you haven't been keeping tabs on him, has been a force in these playoffs, and he continued to make short work of opposing goaltenders on this night. Rosa, who started the game without Jaffray on his wing, found the magic once Claude Noel reunited Jaffray with Rosa and Shirokov, and the three men went on a tear. They finished the night with a combined three goals, four assists, ten shots on net, and a +2 rating. Rosa had a goal and two assists himself, but this line caught fire in this game, and that was a good omen for the Moose.

Powerplay goals? Check. First-line scoring? Check. Solid goaltending? Close, but we'll give a pass, so check. The Moose had to be happy in this game with their offensive efforts. Despite the game featuring four goals-against, the Moose had enough firepower to outlast the Bulldogs in taking Game Three by a 5-4 score! With the win, the Moose cut the series deficit in half to 2-1, and look to continue their success on Wednesday night in Game Four!

All About Effort

If the Moose can continue to perform as well as they did in Game Three, I see no reason why this series cannot be tied after tonight's game. The Moose had the powerplay back, they got some timely goal-scoring, and they bent but did not break defensively.

The best news is that the Moose finally seem to have figured out how to slow down Dawes, Palushaj, and Boyd. If there was anything that did them in during the regular season, it was the scoring of this line. As of Game Three, those three men had been relatively quiet compared to the other Moose-Bulldogs games this season, so the adaptations the Moose have made for that line seem to be working.

Here's hoping the Moose can take a 3-2 lead back to Hamilton where they close out the series! Tonight's game is huge, though, and a win would make this series a best-of-three! DO IT, Moose!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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