Friday, 15 May 2009

AHL Western Conference Final

I decided that, since I've been pushing people to go watch AHL games, maybe I should get out to a few more. And there's no better time like the present as Conference Finals begin. The Manitoba Moose and the Houston Aeros kicked things off tonight in the Western Conference Final. The Moose have played only four games in the last 19 days, while the Aeros are coming off a hard-fought seven-game series against the Milwaukee Admirals. With the Aeros still in playoff mode, how would the Moose fare? Would the Moose come out firing after being off for so long?

I want to start this off by saying that Cody Hodgson, pictured wearing #18, will be playing in Vancouver next season. If you're a Canucks fan, this kid could step in for Sundin right now and not miss a beat. Granted, he's still a little lean as he's listed at 6'0" and 188 pounds, but his hockey sense is incredible. Hodgson earned the third star in tonight's game, and we'll get to his performance in a second, but for only playing limited minutes, he looked like he belonged in the AHL in his first game. And that's good news for Canucks fans.

The Houston Aeros, statistically the worst team still in the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, play a trap like no one else. Kevin Constantine, head coach of the Aeros, used this same trap to help San Jose beat Detroit in the 1994 NHL playoffs, and he's still using it today. It has been modified slightly for the new game, but it appears that Jacques Lemaire's "defence-first" strategy for the Minnesota Wild is being taught at all the Wild's professional levels.

I won't lie: the Aeros play boring hockey. They wait for mistakes, and rarely try to jump up on a play without having someone to bail out the defence. The free-skating Moose had a few problems with the trap tonight, particularly on the powerplay, so that might be something that head coach Scott Arniel and assistant coach Jay Wells will look at. In feeling each other out tonight, this series is set to be quite the battle.

Manitoba came out of the gates with guns a-blazing, firing shots from all angles. The problem? None of them were near the net. Shots were being blocked by the five-man defensive unit employed by the Aeros. After a Moose powerplay went scoreless, the aforementioned Cody Hodgson showed why he was a first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks.

Centering the fourth line, Hodgson picked up a puck along the boards and skated in across the blueline. As the Aeros defender closed in on him along the half-boards, Hodgson deftly saucered a pass over the defender's stick to Greg Rallo to create a two-on-one. Rallo fired a wrist shot that Aeros' goaltender Anton Khudobin got his right pad on, but Dusty Collins was there to bang in the rebound, giving Manitoba the 1-0 lead at the 14:45 mark.

Honestly, Hodgson's pass was a big-league pass. He was calm as the defender moved towards him, and softly delivered a perfect pass to Rallo. Moose fans had better get to the rink as soon as possible to see this young man play because if tonight was any indication, he'll be suiting up in Vancouver next season.

Both teams traded chances in the second period, but the Moose seemed to be afflicted with "shoot-wide" syndrome. The Moose were outshot 10-4 in the first period, but led 1-0. They worked hard in the second period, but tied Houston with 10 shots. Manitoba had a couple of glorious chances to add to the lead, but Khudobin and the Aeros stood tall.

Referee Kyle Rehman whistled Moose defenceman Mark Fistric for hooking at 9:03 of the third period, but it appeared that his stick was being held. Rehman would have none of the protests, however, and Fistric sat in the box. On the powerplay, Houston began to assert themselves. A shot from the half-boards by Corey Locke was stopped by Schneider, but Aeros' forward Tony Hrkac picked up the loose puck at the top of the crease and made an outstanding forehand-to-backhand deke to freeze Schneider and draw both Moose defencemen towards him. With both defencemen heading towards Hrkac, he slipped the puck across the top of the crease to a wide-open Matt Beaudoin who buried it in the back of the net. With 10:10 to play in the game, the two teams were knotted at 1-1.

This goal seemed to revitalize the Moose as they came back on their next few shifts with some fire. 2:08 after the Aeros' powerplay goal, the Moose struck again. Anton Khudobin made an enormous error, leading to a turnover and the flashing red light.

Moose defenceman Maxime Fortunus attempted a stretch pass from his blueline to the Aeros' blueline, but it hopped over Guillaume Desbiens stick and slid down the ice for a potential icing. That is, however, until Khudobin left his crease. Linesman Clint Joyes was quick to wave off the icing after seeing Khudobin going for the puck, and this seemed to catch the Aeros off-guard. Desbiens slammed his body into the Aeros defenceman along the endboards, causing a turnover that was played back to Moose captain Mike Keane. With the Aeros still scrambling to get into position, Moose forward Mario Bliznak skated into the wide-open slot. Keane feathered a pass from the half-boards to Bliznak who looked to shoot as he drew his stick back. However, Bliznak faked the shot, freezing Khudobin, and dragged the puck to the left across the slot towards to faceoff circle. Khudobin sprawled to cover the net, but it was too late as Bliznak tucked home a backhander to restore Manitoba's one goal lead at 11:58 of the third period.

The Aeros began to press more, needing a goal to draw even, but the Moose met the challenge each time. Cory Schneider, goaltender for the Moose, played phenomenally down the stretch, and was a major reason for the Moose drawing first blood in this series with a 2-1 win. While the Moose couldn't score with the net unguarded in the Aeros' zone, they played a very efficient defensive game, and routinely blocked shots and cleared the slot area.

Honestly, not the most exciting game, but it was still entertaining. The crowd was great, and I really had a good time with the folks I was with. I do want to suggest one thing to people attending a hockey game. If you're sitting in the crowd, there's no need to do a play-by-play. You're not on TV or the radio, and the people around you don't appreciate your "colourful" descriptions of what is happening in front of them. I saw the hit. I saw the turnover. I don't need you to explain what is happening or how that hit was "sick".

To the folks who were sitting around me, I really want to thank you for the discussions we had regarding the Phoenix Coyotes and Jim Balsillie during the first intermission. There were some great comments, and some really funny stuff said, and you guys deserve a shout-out for making tonight's game a little more fun. Thanks for your efforts!

Game Two goes tomorrow night with the Moose leading the series 1-0. As long as the Moose remained disciplined, they should be able to win this series in five or six games maximum, sending them to their first-ever Calder Cup Final.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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