WINNIPEG – Head coach Scott Arniel had a smile on his face when he coined his Manitoba Moose underdogs, but there’s a bit of truth to that description.
Despite finishing first overall in the American Hockey League regular season, the 50-23-1-6 Moose are facing a formidable foe in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. Manitoba takes on the 39-29-5-7 Toronto Marlies in the North Division semifinal, a team the Moose have gone 2-4-1-1 against this season, including losing the last six meetings.
“I’m calling us the underdogs,” Arniel said Tuesday after his team practised for Wednesday’s Game 1 at the MTS Centre.
“We’ve lost six in the row to them so they’ve got to be the favourites.”
However, that streak can motivate both ways.
“I’m sure (Toronto coach) Greg Gilbert is going to pump their tires with the fact they’ve beat us six times and that it doesn’t matter where you finish in the standings, come playoffs everybody starts over,” said Arniel, whose team hosts Game 2 Friday night.
“Same thing for us. Our players have to recognize that what we did the last 80 games was excellent, but it doesn’t mean anything now. It’s the old cliche, everybody starts over.”
What the Moose accomplished this season can’t be taken lightly.
Arniel was named the AHL’s coach of the year, second-year pro Cory Schneider was the league’s goalie of the year (28-10-1) and the team’s 50 wins marked a franchise high.
The Moose got a bit of a wake-up call at the end of the regular season that may help them pump it up in the playoffs.
After losing four straight ï¿½- – including two to the Marlies -ï¿½-the Moose won their final regular-season game against Lake Erie.
Toronto’s final three games went to overtime. They won one of them and it was against Manitoba.
“I think (our players) recognize the fact that we’ve been beat by those guys,” Arniel said. “It’s going to take our best effort.
“This isn’t going to be an easy series just to walk into and we’re going to win four straight. This is going to be a grind that we’re going to have to be prepared for.”
The Marlies attack hard in the offensive zone, finish their checks, have some skilled forwards and goalie Justin Pogge has played well against the Moose, he noted.
Toronto centre Tim Stapleton racked up a franchise-high 79 points, with 28 goals and 51 assists in 70 games for seventh place in the AHL.
Manitoba’s leading scorer was Jason Krog, who finished third in the league with 30 goals and 56 assists in 74 games. He led the AHL in scoring last season with the Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves.
Manitoba ended the regular season allowing the fewest goals (188). A lot of credit goes to Schneider, who’s backed up by Curtis Sanford.
Schneider, sporting a business-like buzz haircut for the playoffs, said his team’s regular-season feats have been shelved.
“Teams don’t play the game to win regular-season awards, you play to win the championship trophy,” said Schneider, who led the league with a 2.04 goals against average and .928 save percentage.
Schneider was in net for two of the losses to the Marlies, including one in overtime, but he doesn’t think Toronto has their number.
“(The Marlies) were fighting for their playoff lives there this last month and maybe we were just kind of content with where we were,” he said.
“Now we’re here (in the playoffs) and I think everyone will have that extra jump in their step to kind of push us over the top.”
Manitoba’s defence is propelled by veteran leaders such as Nolan Baumgartner (33 points), who thinks the team has the ingredients for a lengthy playoff run.
“I think we’ve got a pretty solid D core, we have a good mix of veterans and young guys,” Baumgartner said. “We’ve got really great leadership in the room and, obviously, our goaltending is top-notch.
“It made for a good recipe during the year and, hopefully, it mixes well here in the playoffs.”
Last season, the Moose lost in six games (five went to overtime) to Syracuse in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto lost in the third round to Chicago.