Season Highlights Part 4: Quick LearnersBy: Mitch Peacock | Published: June 27th 2018
Often hockey execs and coaches talk about the significance of post-season play for developing players. As a fan you know what playoff hockey looks like. There’s a heightened intensity right from the opening faceoff of the first game, and every moment along the way seems so important.
The Manitoba Moose took a big step forward this season when they earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Sure, the regular schedule was a tale of two halves in some ways as the Moose were unable to maintain their blistering pace they set in the first half, but they still hit the playoffs with high hopes.
Those hopes would be severely tested by the defending Calder Cup champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins in round one.
On to my next “favourite game” of 2017-18, Game 1 of the Central Division Semi-Finals.
The Moose had their hands full with the Griffins in the regular season.
The Central Division rivals met eight times, and the Moose won two of those clashes. Both of those victories came in Michigan early in the schedule. To put it another way, Manitoba didn’t win a game at home in regulation time against Grand Rapids in four tries.
That said, very few teams had much luck with those Griffs. After a Calder Cup hangover to start the season, Grand Rapids lost just 10 times in regulation in their last 47 starts (32-10-1-4). It was a run so strong, the Griffins overtook Manitoba to finish second in the division, one point ahead of the Moose.
On top of that, the Red Wings’ affiliate carried a nine-game win streak in opening round games into the best-of-five with their Jets’ counterparts.
BEST OF FIVE
It takes 15 wins to lift the Calder Cup, not 16 like the Stanley Cup. That’s because the opening round of the post-season tournament is a best-of-five, while the remaining rounds are best-of-seven sets. It’s a quirk of the AHL, and the structure means a “two-three” format. The higher seeded team is afforded the right to choose between hosting a pair to start the series, or play as many as three at home to close the matchup.
The Griffins did the expected and elected to start the series at Bell MTS Place which meant the Moose had two home games to make an impression, or risk going to Michigan on the brink of elimination.
WEATHERING THE STORM
More than half of the Manitoba lineup took the ice in a Calder Cup playoff game for the first time as the series got started in downtown Winnipeg. Meanwhile, the defending champs looked like a team on a roll, playing with purpose.
At one point in the first period of the series, the shots were 13-2 for the guests as Eric Comrie stymied Grand Rapids.
The Griffins eventually found a way past the third-year netminder as Ben Street showed why he was the team’s leading point-getter in the regular season. Street was first to a loose puck in front of the Manitoba net and snapped a quick shot by Comrie to give the visitors a deserved 1-0 lead.
Each team had a power play before the first period was up, but neither team took advantage and the opening stanza ended with the Street goal separating the sides.
Despite being outshot 20-8 the Moose were still within a goal. With Eric Comrie leading the resistance, the young hosts were very much in the hunt. That said, Manitoba needed to pick up its play.
It’s fine to say the Moose were going to push back after being second-best in the opening frame, but there are no guarantees when you pit an inexperienced group against a savvy bunch.
It didn’t take long for the Jets’ AHL club to show it wasn’t going to be an easy out.
The Moose stormed out of the gates in the second period, outshooting the Griffins 9-2 in the first eight minutes, even going to the man-advantage and threatening.
Despite the strong response, Manitoba couldn’t find a way past Tom McCollum in the Grand Rapids’ net. Then, just when things looked like they were going Manitoba’s way, the Moose took a penalty.
Up for the challenge, the home team fought off the Griffins impressive power-play and ended up outshooting their guests 16-8 in the period.
The game had changed, but Manitoba was still down 1-0 going to the third.
WHAT A FINISH
Jan Kostalek had four goals in his first 138 AHL games, but he got hot late in the season. After scoring five goals in his last 11 regular season games, the Czech defenceman delivered again with his first playoff goal. Kostalek’s shot from the blue line made it 1-1 just under six-and-a-half minutes into the third period.
Game on. Series on.
A little more than six minutes later though… trouble. Turner Elson whipped a shot over the shoulder of Comrie, and put the Griffins on top again.
Would the upstart Moose buckle or bounce back?
Manitoba needed all of 31 seconds to provide an answer. Cam Schilling leaned into one from the point, and just like that, it was 2-2 with less than seven minutes to play in regulation time.
With the game seemingly headed for overtime, late drama.
There were less than three minutes left in regulation time when rugged Grand Rapids defender Dylan McIlrath was sent to the box for tripping.
Manitoba had worked all game to earn a chance to take the series opener. Would they snatch a late winner, or could the Griffins get a lift from a late kill?
It was the Moose putting the “special” in special teams. Michael Spacek made his way to that familiar off-wing, weak-side. Nic Petan served up a spectacular pass and… BOOM!
The crowd roared, and Manitoba had its first lead of the game with just 1:09 to play in period three.
And that’s how Game 1 ended, 3-2 Moose.
So much heart and skill from such a young group, and all in the club’s first playoff game in four years. From appearing overmatched to planting the seeds for a series win in one afternoon.
What a game!