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Moose grew steadily for shot at a championship

cc09finals_mtb-her.jpgSince joining the AHL for the 2001-02 season as part of the league’s unprecedented nine-city expansion, the Manitoba Moose have experienced their share of success both on and off the ice. But eight years of hard work has finally paid off this spring with the Moose’s first-ever trip to the AHL’s ultimate stage, the Calder Cup Finals.

Along the way, the Moose have watched both players and head coaches graduate to the National Hockey League while drawing thousands upon thousands of fans to home games in downtown Winnipeg.

Affiliated with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, Manitoba entered the AHL in 2001 along with five other teams from the now-defunct International Hockey League. Coached by Stan Smyl, a 21-year Canucks veteran as a player and then assistant coach, the Moose reached the Calder Cup Playoffs in their inaugural AHL campaign. Jimmy Roy’s double-overtime goal in the decisive game gave Manitoba a qualifying round victory over Worcester, but the Moose then fell to eventual-Calder Cup finalist Bridgeport in a four-game conference quarterfinal series.

Led by top scorers Brandon Reid and Ryan Ready, the Moose returned to the playoffs in 2003 and dispatched of New England foes Portland and Providence in the first two rounds. In the conference semifinals, Manitoba ran into a Hamilton team featuring a host of future NHL standouts, including Michael Ryder, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Komisarek, Jarret Stoll, Fernando Pisani, and Ron Hainsey. The Moose rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 but were then ousted by the Bulldogs, who eventually fell in the Calder Cup Finals.

Manitoba missed the playoffs by four points in 2003-04, but new head coach Randy Carlyle steered the club to a strong bounce-back year in 2004-05. Playing in the new state-of-the-art MTS Centre, the Moose finished third in the North Division but ousted second-place St. John’s and first-place Rochester from the playoffs in five games apiece before bowing out to Chicago in the Western Conference Finals.

That run propelled Carlyle to an NHL head coaching job in Anaheim – where he would win the Stanley Cup two years later – and provided key experience to future Canucks Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Alexandre Burrows, and goaltender Alex Auld.

Guided by new bench boss Alain Vigneault, a former NHL head coach who won a Calder Cup as a player in 1984, the 2005-06 Moose finished with 100 points and rallied from a 2-0 series deficit in the first playoff round to oust Syracuse in six games.

Despite a seven-game loss to Grand Rapids in the division finals, the parent Canucks thought enough of Vigneault that they named him their new head coach for the 2006-07 campaign. And Vigneault made an immediate impact, leading Vancouver to a 49-win season that culminated in his selection as the NHL’s coach of the year.

mtb_200.jpgThe 2005-06 campaign was also highlighted by the Moose and the MTS Centre hosting the annual AHL All-Star Classic, which attracted more than 30,000 spectators over the two-day event and featured a 9-4 victory by the Canadian squad in the All-Star Game.

After watching their previous two head coaches each earn promotions to the NHL, the Moose entered the 2006-07 campaign under the direction of new bench boss Scott Arniel. A second-round draft pick by the Winnipeg Jets in 1981, Arniel played 406 NHL games in Winnipeg during the early part of his career and eventually ended his playing days by suiting up for three seasons with the Moose in the late 1990s.

Paced by a 35-goal output from Jason Jaffray and the standout goaltending of newcomer Drew MacIntyre, the Moose registered a franchise-record 102 points in 2006-07 and captured the North Division title. That year was highlighted by a remarkable 17-1-0-0 run during a six-week stretch in February and March.

But after a hard-fought seven-game win over Grand Rapids in the first round, Manitoba was stymied by fresh-faced goaltender Carey Price and Hamilton in the division finals, falling in six contests to the eventual Calder Cup champions.

Manitoba surged right back near the top of the North Division in 2007-08, holding second place for much of the season before a furious late-season run by Syracuse forced the Moose to settle for a third-place finish with 99 points. The Crunch then handed Manitoba a first-round playoff elimination, taking all four series victories in overtime.

From a Moose and Canucks fan’s perspective, however, arguably the most important development of 2007-08 was the vast improvement of rookie goaltender Cory Schneider during the late stages of the season. A first-round draft pick in 2004, Schneider struggled to an 8-10-1 record with an unimpressive 3.12 goals-against average by Feb. 13, mostly in backup duty to Drew MacIntyre.

But beginning with a victory over division-leading Toronto on Feb. 17, Schneider won his next nine decisions and finished the season on a 13-2-1 run to wrestle the playoff starting duties away from MacIntyre. It proved to be a harbinger of even greater fortunes to come for both Schneider and the Moose.

Their offense boosted by the offseason additions of former Calder Cup champions Jason Krog, Guillaume Desbiens, and Mark Cullen, and former finalist Michel Ouellet, the Moose won 15 of their first 18 games this season and never looked back en route to a team-high 50-win and 107-point finish and the AHL’s regular-season title.

Schneider won 28 of his 40 appearances (28-10-1) and led the league in both goals-against average (2.04) and save percentage (.928) on his way to AHL goaltender of the year honors, and Arniel was named AHL coach of the year for his efforts.

After an early hiccup against Toronto in the first round, the Moose enjoyed a relatively smooth ride through the Western Conference playoffs and are now playing in the city of Winnipeg’s first pro hockey championship series in 30 years.

Manitoba fell into a 3-1 series deficit in the Calder Cup Finals but captured Game 5 in a hostile Hershey environment on Tuesday night, and the Moose will now return to a jam-packed MTS Centre on Friday looking to force a decisive seventh game.

After making seven playoff appearances in their first eight AHL seasons and averaging more than 7,500 fans per game over those eight campaigns, there is no question that the Moose and greater Winnipeg are both ready for the opportunity to chase a championship.