Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Antler Banter: Volume 26

The first week of April always mean we're near the last week of the hockey season, and that has players, coaches, and fans fired up for the playoffs. We here at Antler Banter are no different as we cheer on the Manitoba Moose to what could be top-spot in the AHL's North Division. The Rochester Americans, Hamilton Bulldogs, and Toronto Marlies all get a shot at keeping the Moose from winning the North Division while the Moose hold their fate in their hands. Big divisional games are on the schedule for the rest of the season, so let's get to it! Don't forget to 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. The Moose look to own the division on this week's Hardcore Hockey!

Americans Take Moose Down To Wire

The Moose squeaked by the Americans in the last edition of Antler Banter by a 3-2 margin after Rochester's Marc Cheverie stood on his head in keeping the Moose at bay. Rochester was proving that being out the playoff race is no reason to roll over and die. Tyler Weiman got the call for the Moose in this one while Rochester went back to Marc Cheverie in hoping that he could down the Moose on Wednesday night.

For the first time in what seems like a long time, the Moose special teams came to play, and they contributed in a big way. The Moose's seemingly anemic powerplay came to life as they went 3-for-7 with the man-advantage. Yes, they did surrender a shorthanded goal again in this game, but three goals with the extra attacker is a great showing for one of the weaker parts of the Herd's attack. The penalty killers deserve some credit as well as they killed off all four Rochester powerplays, and remain a bright spot for the Moose on the season. I hate to keep harping on this point, but special teams can make or break a team in the playoffs, so here's hoping this is the start of something good for the Moose.

The Moose blueliners are really stepping up in the offensive zone, and this is something that can really hurt an opponent in the postseason. The Moose got 18 of their 43 shots on the night from the defence corps, and this active blueline could spell big trouble for an opponent in the playoffs. They ended the night with three goals, two assists, but an unflattering -5 rating for the night. Normally, I'd be all over this -5 rating for the six men, but the two powerplay goals and two powerplay assists recorded by the blueliners are more than enough to make up for the poor rating over the course of the game since powerplay points don't add to those totals.

It took an extra period and the skills competition to decide a winner in this one, but the Moose secured the 5-4 shootout victory thanks to a goal by Garth Murray in the seventh-round of the shootout and some timely stops by Tyler Weiman. It wasn't a pretty game for the Moose while playing five-on-five, but a win is a win is a win. With the victory, the Moose improve to 42-27-6 on the season!

Third Time Is A Charm

Three games within the span of week is like a mini-playoff series, so you had to expect some fireworks between the Moose and Rochester when they met up on Friday for their third straight game. Clinching a playoff spot had to be on the minds of the Moose in this one as a victory would guarantee in invite to the big dance. Rochester's Marc Cheverie would get his third opportunity to earn a win against the Herd. Eddie Lack didn't last five minutes in this one as the Moose swapped their goalies early on. Tyler Weiman cleaned up the last 55 minutes of the game.

This was a terrible game for the Moose from the start. Rick Rypien and Eric Selleck brought the fisticuffs just three seconds into the game, but it was Rochester who seemed to gain all the jump after the scuffle. Flat-footed is the best way to describe the Moose in this contest as they were outworked, outskated, and outhustled in nearly ever facet of the game. If this is how the Moose are going to close out the season, it might be a short playoff series against whomever the Moose play.

Jordan Schroeder and Mario Bliznak finished the game with a -2 rating each. The duo was on the ice for Rochester's first goal and Rochester's fourth goal. I'm not sure what role they are supposed to be playing, but it appeared as though they have decided that using their speed is no longer important. Both of these players need to be much more involved in the game as their speed can break a close game wide open. It was disappointing to see two of the Moose's most trusted players turning in a poor defensive showing. Combine that with their total of zero shots in this game, and it seemed like these two men simply went through the motions.

If you wanted an example of how not to clinch a playoff spot, the Moose provided ample evidence on how to do so. Kudos for Tyler Weiman coming in to mop up after the Moose hung Eddie Lack out to dry in this one. Rarely have we seen head coach Claude Noel use a timeout to give his team a wake-up call, but after finding themselves down 4-0 midway through the second period, he called for the 30-second breather. Rochester's Marc Cheverie would indeed pick up the victory, but his shutout would be broken in the third by Marco Rosa in an otherwise uninspiring game. With the 4-1 loss, the Moose fall to 42-28-6 on the campaign.

Bulldogs Pile On

After allowing two points to get away from the night before, Saturday had the Moose in Hamilton to face the Bulldogs. Hamilton trailed the Moose by one point as these two teams entered this game, so there was a lot on the line for both teams. A win by the Moose would make things very difficult on Hamilton down the stretch, so the Moose needed a good showing in this one, especially after not showing up in Rochester the night before. Former Moose netminder Drew MacIntyre got the call for the Bulldogs while Eddie Lack was sent to the nets for the Moose.

If there is one thing that can be said for the Herd, it's that they take care of the kids who come out of Manitoba. Winnipegger Nigel Dawes had himself an unofficial hat trick against the Moose as he scored both goals for Hamilton against the Moose in this game as well as adding another goal in the shootout. The coaching staff will probably sit down and look at how to stop the line of Nigel Dawes, Aaron Palushaj, and Dustin Boyd, but these three men are scoring goals in bunches for the Bulldogs. And they seem to have the Moose's number whenever the Herd is on the opposite bench.

It may have taken 77 games, but Aaron Volpatti finally picked up his first goal of the season. The tough-as-nails winger converted a Rick Rypien feed for his first goal in this campaign! I don't call out Volpatti too often, but he's really one of those guys who will go out and do anything you ask of him. If the coaching staff had been asking for goals in recent weeks, Volpatti delivered tonight.

Lack and MacIntyre battled through three periods and an overtime frame to a 2-2 draw. In the shootout, the only man to find the back of the net was the aforementioned Nigel Dawes, and his goal gave the Bulldogs the 3-2 shootout victory. The Moose played much better after they sleepwalked through the game against Rochester the night before, but still came up a little short against one of the teams they are battling for the North Division crown. With the shootout loss, the Moose fall to 42-28-7 on the season.

National TV Playoff Spot

The Moose rolled down the highway from Hamilton into Toronto for a Sunday afternoon game against the Marlies as they complete their last three-games-in-three-days set this season. Manitoba once again had the chance to clinch a playoff spot with a victory while Toronto needed a win just to keep their season alive. This game was nationally broadcast on CBC as the last of their AHL on CBC games this season, and it was a great showing by both teams. Eddie Lack got the call for the Moose on Sunday while Ben Scrivens was sent to the blue paint for the Marlies.

Marco Rosa has really been an offensive dynamo since returning from injury, and his line of Rosa, Sergei Shirokov, and Alexandre Bolduc really controlled the play whenever they were on the ice. The three men accounted for two goals, four assists, nine shots, and a +6 rating on the afternoon - a pretty good showing of how dominant they were! Shirokov opened the scoring with his 22nd goal of the season while linemate Rosa netted his 12th goal of the season early in the third period. This line should probably be kept together for the remainder of the season considering how well they work together.

If anyone has any doubt that Eddie Lack is the MVP for the Moose, this game should be submitted as evidence of why he deserves mention for the accolade. The Moose surrendered 41 shots in this game as the closed out their three-game weekend, and Lack once again stood tall. Lack stopped 39 shots on the afternoon, and really bailed out his defence on a couple of occasions. Despite allowing a soft goal on the afternoon, Lack stood tall in holding the Marlies at bay in this game.

The Marlies threw everything they had at the Moose on Sunday afternoon, but Lack and the blueline held strong as they secured the 3-2 victory! With the win, the Moose not only clinched a playoff spot in the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs, but they also killed any chance of seeing Toronto in the playoffs as well. The clinching victory pushes Manitoba's record to 43-28-7!

The Quest For First

It comes down to this weekend: Hamilton visits MTS Centre for two games that will determine the North Division standings. Manitoba, with a pair of wins, can capture the North Division title. Hamilton, with a pair of wins, can capture the North Division title. Lake Erie, who is lurking in the background, can capture first-place if Hamilton and Manitoba split the games. Clearly, there are a number of scenarios in play here, so there's really only one thing the Moose have to do: win two games over their North Division rivals.

Two wins gives the Moose home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs, so it's time to shake the overgrown gorilla off their backs and beat the Bulldogs twice. DO IT!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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