One Season Ends, the Second Season Begins
The Manitoba Moose are into their first playoff run since the 2.0 era began, and first post-season action since the St John’s IceCaps reached the Calder Cup Final in 2014.
The opportunity was earned through a 24-point improvement over last season.
A leap built on a whopping 13 more victories, and a 76-game season franchise record 25 road wins.
“When we first started the season I don’t think anybody thought we were going to see our team having the success we had,” offered Head Coach Pascal Vincent at a recent media availability. “I think a big chunk of it, I don’t want to say overachieve, but we were playing extremely well and everybody was on the same page and then at some point like every hockey team at this level, or the National Hockey League, you get hit by injuries and with the tough schedule that we faced (the) second half was way more of an evaluation of how our players were going to react in different roles and we grew as a team. We’re better today, as individuals, than we were six or seven months ago. And, we earned the right to be in the playoffs and to me that was mission number one.”
Factor in AHL recognition for Vincent (coach of the year), Mason Appleton (all-rookie team, first all-star team, and rookie of the Year), Sami Niku (all-rookie team, first all-star team, and top defenceman), and Michael Hutchinson (second all-star team) and there were plenty of positives leading into this weekend’s playoff opener.
For an organization that prides itself on the twin objectives of winning and player development, it’s a case of so far so good even with though wins proved hard to come by in the final quarter of the campaign.
CHALLENGING STRETCH RUN
The Moose went 7-11-0-1 to finish the season as those age-old American League hurdles of injuries, call-ups, and a taxing schedule proved difficult for a young team working to lift its game at the most challenging time of the season.
While a 3-3-0-1 mark on a two-and-a-half week road swing from Milwaukee to Austin was solid, it was a spell that took its toll on the group.
Ultimately, the wear-and-tear of that grind showed during an eight-game home stand that yielded a couple of last minute losses en route to going two-and-six.
“I think our second half of the year wasn’t great, but I think it might have helped us (with) knowing how to play and knowing how to play against experienced teams,” said winger Nic Petan at Bell MTS Iceplex earlier this week. “I think when we’re at our best we’ll be fine against anyone.”
FIRST PLACE RACE
Those who’ve been around the game a while will tell you an American Hockey League season is a marathon and not a sprint.
Fortunately for Manitoba, the club had two dazzling quarters and another solid one in the bank to keep them in the hunt for top spot in the Central Division heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
A nearly perfect performance in a 4-0 win in Cleveland on Thursday, April 12 was clutch and the battle was on despite Chicago being in the driver’s seat. However a Wolves win in Rockford a night later, and a Moose loss in the rematch with the Monsters, dropped Manitoba into a tussle with the Griffins for second place with Grand Rapids in control of its destiny.
In the end the Red Wings’ affiliate snatched the second spot in the division. As a result, the Moose opened its Central Division Semi-Final against the Griffins on home ice this weekend and will head to Grand Rapids this week for the remainder of the series. It also left Manitoba three points off the pace in the hunt for the division crown after owning the top spot in the division for 133 days this season.
It was a fact not lost on veteran defenceman Cam Schilling.
“Overall (the season) was really good. I mean we were in first place most of the year, and we ended up making the playoffs. That’s giving us a chance to win it all, and that’s all you can ask at the start of the season. I think overall though, our group’s grown. We had a young core starting out, and I think by the end of the season we ended up getting more depth and a little bit more games played for the younger guys and (that’s helped them) be able to contribute more.”
While Schilling was offered a big picture perspective, coach Vincent noticed some key things about the team’s approach as it reached the regular season finish line.
“I really liked the way we finished the season. The mindset was right. We used it as some kind of a practice, in a way, in order to challenge ourselves to get ready (for the playoffs). We played physical. We were on the puck. We were blocking shots, all those details that you need in the playoffs, and we did it right against a team (Chicago) that was ready for us and in their building.”
One impressive season complete, a series best-of-five series tied 1-1 and two wins in Grand Rapids standing between the Moose and advancing to the next stage of their quest for the Calder Cup.