Moose gearing up for battle in North Division semifinal

by Jen Sharpe || AHL On The Beat Archive

mtb-syrFriday, March 28, was a bittersweet day for the Manitoba Moose. After surrendering four early goals to the Rochester Americans, the Moose managed an unbelievable comeback to force overtime. Although the club eventually lost in a shootout – ending a franchise record-tying 10-game winning streak – the single point earned did more than salvage a point streak, it clinched a Moose playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season.

Manitoba will face the Syracuse Crunch in what will surely be an exciting North Division Semifinal, beginning this weekend in Syracuse. Like the Moose, the Crunch excelled in the latter half of the season, posting an impressive 20-0-0-3 record down the stretch and bettering Manitoba’s 10-game winning streak with a 15-game run of their own.

In addition to those hot streaks, the Moose and Crunch split a heated four-game season series highlighted by a final fight-filled battle at the MTS Centre on Jan. 25. The Moose beat the Crunch for the second consecutive game that night, adding fuel to Syracuse’s already-stoked fire heading into this first-round match-up. Having missed the playoffs last season, the Crunch’s most-recent playoff memories are unpleasant: in the 2006 North Division Semifinal, the higher-seed Crunch squandered a two-game series lead by suffering four straight losses to the Moose.

Though the current Moose squad boasts a nearly-identical record as that of the 2005-06 team, few players can compare the two playoff runs. Only six forwards (Jason Jaffray, Jozef Balej, Rick RypienMike Brown, Mike Keane and Alexandre Bolduc) and two defensemen (Maxime Fortunus and Nathan McIver) will appear on both playoff line-up cards.
Not even the coaching staff or equipment managers have remained the same.

Manitoba’s playoff roster has changed plenty in the past two seasons, but it’s the current club’s fluctuating line-up that has made headlines all year. Since the start of the season, 48 different players have suited up to play for the Moose, while an additional three signed on but never dressed in a game. Those 48 players give the Moose the third-largest season roster of any AHL team this season and the most-extensive line-up in franchise history.

Despite the injuries, recalls, and re-assignments, the Moose have stayed above .500 all season and set new standards along the way. A franchise-high eight-game road winning streak has been entered into the record books, as has the club’s record-tying 10-game overall winning streak and 13-game point streak. On an individual note, rookie goalie Cory Schneider found his game in the latter half of the season, notching nine straight wins (tying a Moose record set by Johan Hedberg) and earning AHL Rookie of the Month honors in March.

Another rookie, Michael Grabner, finished just six points shy of becoming Manitoba’s best first-year sniper, and set new team standards for rookie goals (22) and game-winners (5). Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the experience spectrum, veteran forward Brad Moran climbed to sixth on the league’s leaderboard with 77 points, due in part to a team-record seven-game multi-point streak that helped him secure AHL Player of the Month for March.

Though a handful of other records are up for grabs in the three remaining regular season games, Manitoba is focused on grasping home-ice advantage for their playoff series vs. Syracuse. Like the Moose, the Crunch have iced over 45 players this year and have had time to tweak their roster heading into the postseason. Like the Moose, the Crunch’s roster has also been reinforced by the elimination of their NHL affiliate, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sent AHL All-Stars Joakim Lindstrom and Clay Wilson, as well as four others, back to Syracuse.

For Manitoba, a long season and a long roster will ideally result in a long playoff run. Clinching a playoff berth was step one, securing second place in the North Division is step two, and crushing the Crunch in the North Division Semifinal is step three. After that, it’s step-by-step, game-by-game on the path to the Calder Cup.