Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Antler Banter: Volume 10

If "X" marks the spot, we've reached Episode X here at Antler Banter, and we're glad you found this spot! The Moose entertained the West Division-leading Texas Stars this past weekend, and I had suggested that four points would do wonders for their standing. We'll take a look at the upcoming schedule, look at a new gunslinger who was sent to town, and check out who is still nursing injuries. As always, for all of your Manitoba Moose news and information, don't forget to check out the Moose website. If you're interested in attending a Manitoba Moose game, please click here for seating information, ticket pricing, and availability. Back to another year of Hardcore Hockey!

Last Game of 2009

The Moose welcomed the Texas Stars to MTS Centre on New Year's Eve, and they really needed to earn at least two points against a team that has more points in the standings. Keeping themselves ahead of Abbotsford and Grand Rapids while keeping pace with Hamilton and Rochester was vitally important when looking at the second half of the season. Cory Schneider took to the blue paint for the Moose while Matt Climie assumed his spot at the opposite end of the rink.

The Moose didn't waste any time in showing the 11,820 fans in attendance that they were there to win. A Michael Grabner shot was stopped by Climie, but the rebound landed in the slot as Marco Rosa crashed the crease. Rosa slapped the puck past Climie just 1:59 in for his seventh goal of the season, and the Moose were off and running with a 1-0 lead.

Lee than a minute later, the Stars responded. Former Moose Ray Sawada threaded a pass to Colton Sceviour. Sceviour gained a step on both Brian Salcido and Tommy Maxwell to give himself a partial breakaway. Sceviour roofed the puck over a crouching Schneider at the 2:51 mark for his fifth of the season, and the game was tied 1-1 before everyone had taken their seats.

The first period saw the two teams posture back and forth as both teams searched for weaknesses, but none were to be found. The two teams remained knotted at one goal apiece as the second period started.

The middle frame was much the same through the first half. However, Texas took the lead at 13:39 when Travis Morin tipped a Landon Wilson shot that eluded Schneider's pad. Morin's fourth of the season gave the Stars a 2-1 lead.

As proved in the first period, the lead wasn't safe. Brian Salcido tied the game up with a blast from the top of the face-off circle. Salcido's sixth of the season past Climie's glove put the two teams back into a deadlock.

3:05 later, Michael Grabner fired a wrist shot from the high slot that somehow found its way through Climie and came to rest in the back of the net. With a mere 55 seconds to play in the second period, the Moose grabbed a 3-2 lead on Grabner's sixth goal of the season. The Moose carried the score into the intermission.

The third period saw the Stars pour on the pressure, and they came over the Moose blue line with reckless abandon as they looked to equalize the game. However, Cory Schneider proved once again that he is one of the elite goaltenders in the AHL. Schneider turned aside all 15 third period shots that Texas threw at him, and the Moose defeated the Stars by that 3-2 score.

While the shot clock showed the Moose on the losing end of the battle, the scoreboard is the only count that matters. With the victory, the Moose improved to 20-14-4-0 this season, and matched their longest winning streak of the season with three wins in a row.

Opening 2010 With Stars

The second game went Saturday at MTS Centre, and the Stars were looking for the split after their New Year's Eve loss to the Moose. The Moose were looking to build on their three-game winning streak, so this game had all the intrigue necessary to be good. Daren Machesney drew the assignment for the Moose while Todd Ford too to the Stars' net. 7416 fans turned out for this game, so there was a great crowd on-hand for the second game of the two-game series.

Just 24 seconds into the game, Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Texas' Francis Wathier decided to chuck knuckles. While it ended as more of a hugging match, both players got five minutes for cuddling, and the game resumed shortly after the interruption.

Both teams appeared to be locked in the chess battle again as neither side gave the other an opening. However, the Stars found a seam and capitalized first. Colton Sceviour lofted a backhand between the Moose defencemen from just inside the red line, and a streaking Mathieu Beaudoin corralled the puck behind the Moose defence. Beaudoin went forehand to backhand on the deke, and shelved a backhander past Machesney's blocker. Beaudoin's ninth of the season gave Texas the 1-0 lead at the 17:05 mark of the first period.

With the Moose down a goal to open the second period, you had to expect the Herd to come out rumbling. However, it was the Stars who added to their lead. Travis Morin won a race to a loose puck in the corner, and centered it to Fabian Brunnstrom. Brunnstrom made no mistake as he one-timed his first goal of the season past Machesney on the glove side, and Texas had a 2-0 lead just 3:34 into the second.

The Moose responded at the 7:54 mark. Tommy Maxwell fired a puck towards the net from the half-boards, and Sergei Shirokov deflected the puck out of mid-air past Ford for his 12th of the season. With Shirokov's goal, the Moose were on the board, trailing 2-1.

Guillaume Desbiens got in on the act as well. Evan Oberg's point shot went wide of the net, but Desbiens was johnny-on-the-spot for the rebound off the boards as he fired the puck past Ford. Desbiens' sixth goal of the season at 11:48 of the second period put the Moose back on even footing with the Stars with the game knotted at 2-2.

50 seconds later, and the Moose took the lead. Sergei Shirokov won a puck battle behind the net against Texas' Ivan Vishnevskiy, and skated to his left as he circled the net. As Shirokov turned the corner, he fed Michael Grabner in the high slot who one-timed the puck through Ford. Grabner's blast was his seventh goal of the season, and the Moose were up 3-2 with just over seven minutes to play in the second.

Neither team could capitalize on their chances in those last seven minutes, and, like the New Year's Eve game, the Moose led 3-2 with twenty minutes to play. More impressively, the Moose and Stars were tied in shots-on-goal with 22 apiece, showing how evenly these two teams were playing.

In this game, however, the Stars found the equalizer. Ivan Vishnevskiy gained a step on Lawrence Nycholat as he crossed the blue line into the Moose zone. Evan Oberg, in an effort to cut Vishnevskiy off, slid across the zone as Nycholat valiantly tried to get back in the play. However, Vishnevskiy slid the puck past Oberg to the open Travis Morin who had nothing but twine to shoot at. Morin made no mistake in scoring his fifth goal of the season into the yawning cage at 5:35 of the third period, and the two teams were tied at 3-3.

Morin struck again at 16:28. Brunnstrom fed the big centerman in the high slot with a gorgeous pass from the half-boards, and Morin caught Machesney sliding across as he fired it high stick-side. Morin's sxith of the season and second of the game put the Stars ahead with just over three and a half minutes to play.

With Machesney on the bench for an extra attacker, the Moose pressed for the tying goal. Shirokov beat former Moose defenceman Maxime Fortunus to the puck in the corner and slapped it behind the Texas net. Mike Keane picked up the loose puck and whipped a wrap-around shot on net on the backhand as Ford slid across the crease. Keane's backhanded wrap-around shot found enough space between Ford's skate and the post, and the Moose had tied the game 4-4 with 34 seconds to play. Keane's eighth goal of the season ties him for his career high with the Moose, and there is still a ton of hockey to be played this season.

With the final horn after sixty minutes, the two teams were looking at overtime. However, that extra time also solved nothing, so it was off to the shootout. Ivan Vishnevskiy beat Machesney on the first shot, but Marco Rosa responded for Manitoba with their first shot. It went to Round Five where Marty Murray was the last shooter. Murray's deke past Ford's poke-check allowed him to backhand the puck past the sprawling goaltender, and the Moose picked up their sixth shootout win in their sixth attempt.

With the win, the Moose improve to 21-14-4-0 this season, and really made an impact in the North Division standings with their fourth win in a row. Machesney was outstanding in the third period as he turned away 14 of 16 shots, and 36 of 40 overall in the game.

Every Point Matters

With the schedule beginning to even out, the Moose have made things very interesting in the North Division. Thanks to Rochester's recent 3-6-1-0 slide combined with Manitoba's 7-3-0-0 mark in their last ten games, the Moose now sit even with the Americans with 46 points. The Amerks still have two games in hand, but the Moose are nipping at their heels. The Moose still trail division-leading Hamilton by seven points, but they also kept pace with Abbotsford and Grand Rapids. The Moose have a five-point advantage over the Heat, and a seven-point lead over the Griffins. Only the Griffins have games in hand, and that number is one.

Another Hospital Bed Opens

With the Moose getting healthier, this team is beginning to round into form and look a lot like the juggernaut it was last season. While it's still early to proclaim that this team will be back in the Calder Cup Finals, regular, everyday players are getting healthy.
  • Nolan Baumgartner - broken finger. Baumgartner is skating with the team, and will most likely return this upcoming weekend against the Hershey Bears.
  • Michael Funk - concussion. Funk is still experiencing concussion symptoms. As hard as it is to say this, Funk's season might already be over.
  • Matt McCue - McCue's concussion problems appear to be over, and he is on the move. More on that below.
Revolving Door Keeps Spinning

Vancouver assigned a big-name NHL player to the Moose, and the Moose began making space for returning players.
  • Mathieu Schneider - assigned by Vancouver. After what sounds like a personal spat over playing time between Schneider and Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault, Schneider was put on waivers. With no takers, the Canucks assigned him to Manitoba where he will don the antlers for his first AHL action since 1989-90 when he played 28 games for the Sherbrooke Canadiens.
  • Matt McCue - assigned to the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors. McCue needs to get back into the swing of hockey after taking time off to nurse his concussion. However, head coach Scott Arniel also wants McCue to improve his pugilistic skills, and time in the ECHL should help with that.
  • Neil Petruic - released from PTO. Petruic was released by the Moose on Tuesday. Despite scoring one goal and one assist in 13 games while being a +1, Petruic is literally the "odd man out" with Schneider's arrival. He appeared to be a very serviceable defenceman, but it doesn't help him or the team to have him sitting in the press box. My best to Petruic, and I hope he lands somewhere great!
More Names In Lights

With Nolan Baumgartner having been named to the AHL All-Star Game as the captain of the Canada team, it was announced that Moose rookie Sergei Shirokov will be joining him in Portland, Maine on January 18 and 19. Shirokov was named to the PlanetUSA team after leading the Moose in goals and points for most of the season. Congratulations to both players, and I look forward to the skills competition and game in two weeks!

The Rematch

This weekend's games feature the Moose welcoming the Hershey Bears back to town. As you may be aware, the Bears and Moose tangled for the Calder Cup last season, and the Bears took it back to Pennsylvania with them after defeating the Moose at MTS Centre in Game Six last year. The Bears are the best team in the AHL as it stands with 56 points and a .757 winning percentage. The Bears have won 10 games in a row, and really look like a well-oiled machine. This will be the biggest test for the Moose this season in terms of seeing how close they are to the defending champions.

Keith Aucoin comes into the weekend set leading the AHL in goals with 19. He sits second in points as well, just two points back of Hartford's Corey Locke with 43 points. Alexandre Giroux and Ben Gordon aren't making it any easier either as they have 38 and 36 points respectively.

Braden Holtby and Jason Bacashihua come into the game as one of the best tandems in the AHL, and goals may be tough to come by. Holtby has a ridiculous 1.45 GAA, a 9-1-1 record, and a .949 save percentage in 11 games. Bacashihua is a little more mortal with a 2.69 GAA and .907 save percentage, but his 7-2-1 record still shows that he's no slouch either.

However, as they say, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. This is exactly what the Moose need right now, and this should be an excellent test to see how good this team is. A weekend split would be a great result, and anything on top of that is gravy. As long as the Moose play disciplined, smart hockey, four points is not out of the question.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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