Reflecting on 2017-18By: Mitch Peacock | Published: May 18th 2018
The Manitoba Moose put together a memorable 2017-18 season by reaching the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in four years. The post-season berth came as a reward for plenty of good work over the 76-game regular season.
A third place finish in the Central Division set up a first round matchup with the reigning Calder Cup Champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Moose advanced after going the distance in a thrilling best-of-five series.
Next up the Rockford IceHogs in the Central Division Final, and the Blackhawks affiliate’s combination of depth and experience proved too much for the banged-up Jets’ American League team.
With that, the time to pen a final chapter came a little earlier than hoped. That said, the 2017-18 campaign was still a season that combined the organization’s twin aims of winning hockey games and emphasizing player development with great success.
The Moose broke camp with a more experienced roster than previous 2.0 era teams, but this group needed some time to find its stride. A lacklustre loss in Bakersfield, California as the calendar turned to November left Manitoba at .500 and looking for more.
Ask almost any player on the team and they’ll tell you something changed after that night. While coach Pascal Vincent is coy about his part in what came next it’s safe to say the staff and players knew the team had more to offer.
Few would have expected what followed… a dazzling stretch that set up the rest of the season.
It started with a hard-fought win in Stockton. Then, the very next night, a return visit to Bakersfield and another victory – this one in overtime. The pair of wins led to two more before the four-game run ended in the trip finale in San Jose.
The fun was just about to begin.
“It starts from the leadership,” said defenceman Julian Melchiori in a chat at the club’s practice facility. “I think we had a great older group of guys. Guys who weren’t here just for their personal career, but here for the team, and I think that throughout the year that made the difference. In the AHL sometimes you can get caught up trying to be here for yourself a little bit, and I think we had some great older guys that all wanted to do well in the big picture of things. It really benefited us.”
That veteran leadership, combined with the promising younger pros, worked to boost the Moose to a new level. By mid-November, a season-high nine game win streak formed the base of sixteen consecutive games without a regulation loss. It was a mark no AHL club bettered this season. It was a run highlighted by a two-game sweep of the Marlies in Toronto in mid-December, lifting the team into first in the overall standings.
“When you’re healthy it makes a huge difference. Not only were we healthy, but the Jets were healthy. So we had our full lineup. The Jets had their full lineup. We were rolling,” said Head Coach Pascal Vincent at the team’s final media availability. “We were playing up to our potential, and we had guys playing extremely well and respecting their roles. It was a good moment for the organization. It was a good moment for the team, but it also helped us define how good we can be and what we can achieve when we play as a team. That moment in the season really helped us make the playoffs because we separated ourselves from the other teams.”
ADVERSITY BUILDS CHARACTER
As the second half of the season arrived, so did injury issues for the Jets. Moose scoring leader Jack Roslovic, vying for the AHL scoring lead and showing how much his game had grown, got the call.
From there, more injuries, up top and with the Moose, created challenges the first half did not.
For Captain Patrice Cormier, the team was prepared: “I think our early success this year kind of brought the guys closer and from there we kind of hit a few bumps in the road – injuries, call-ups and I thought we did a good job of staying the course and we kept battling every night.”
By the time game 76 was complete, that “every night” attitude produced 13 more wins than the previous season, two dozen more points, and a club record for road victories with 25.
Individually, Pascal Vincent earned coach of the year honours, Mason Appleton got the AHL rookie of the year nod, and Sami Niku was recognized as the league’s top defenceman. Appleton and Niku were both named to the all-rookie and first all-star teams, and goalie Michael Hutchinson was voted to the AHL’s second team.
POST SEASON RUN
Injuries, suspensions, and call-ups played a part in the Moose playoff story but they weren’t enough to spoil the tale.
Before falling short against Rockford, the gutsy Moose took two out of three in Grand Rapids to advance past the Central Division Semi-Finals, closing it out with an impressive 5-1 win in a winner-take-all fifth game at Van Andel Arena.
“I think just everyday coming to the rink and winning at the start, it was really special. It made you happy coming to the rink,” said heart-and-soul winger JC Lipon, before adding, “The only thing in our life, I mean everybody has their issues away from the rink or whatever, but when you’re not winning hockey games that’s kind of all you think about cause it’s our job. When you’re winning nothing really bothers you very much. It was very exciting to come every day and go to the playoffs with these guys.”
Goalie Eric Comrie backstopped the Moose to their playoff success after a regular season split between the AHL club and the Jets. Despite not being around as much as in years past, the third-year pro is a team leader with Manitoba and offered an assessment that both sums things up and looks ahead.
“The second third (of the season) we lost a lot of guys, and we didn’t have quite the personnel, but every single one of our guys did exactly what we had to do. They battled every single night. We really did our best out there and we made the playoffs, made the second round which is a pretty good accomplishment, but we’re looking to do more in the future.”
Now the biggest challenge is waiting for next season to arrive.