WINNIPEG – Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel doesn’t want to play the underdog card heading into the first round of the American Hockey League playoffs against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Even though the Bulldogs finished atop the North Division and Western Conference with 28 more points than the Moose, Arniel believes the teams match up well.
“I’m not a big believer in underdogs and favourites,” Arniel said Tuesday after practising for the best-of-seven series opener Thursday in Hamilton.
And when the reigning AHL coach of the year looks at the eight-game season series between the two clubs, it sets the stage for a close battle.
“I’d like to think we won the series because we were 4-3-1,” Arniel said with a smile. “I know they were 4-3-1 also, but you always take those positives out of all those stats. We matched up pretty good against them.
“Two games were blowouts, not our best efforts, but we played well and we can use that moving into this week. It’s not like we were 0-8 against them and not even have a chance.”
The Bulldogs finished the regular season with a 52-17-3-8 record on the way to breaking 31 franchise records and tying six others.
Manitoba claimed fourth spot in the division with a 40-33-5-2 record, a big drop from last season when the team was first overall in the AHL with a 50-23-1-6 mark and went on to lose the Calder Cup championship to the Hershey Bears in six games.
Still, Hamilton rookie head coach Guy Boucher is thinking along the same lines as Arniel.
“I’m expecting a series that can go to seven – and even double or triple overtime in the seventh game,” Boucher predicted. “They’ve got a very good team. They’ve got experience and good goaltending and they are very patient. I don’t think it’s going to be a very open game. It’s going to be a very tight game.”
Both clubs will be fielding rosters impacted by injury or call-ups to their NHL parent teams, the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks.
Hamilton will be without forward Max Pacioretty, (shoulder); goalie Curtis Sanford (ankle); defenceman Mathieu Carle (shoulder); forward Eric Neilson (back); forward Tom Pyatt (Montreal); forward Ben Maxwell (Montreal) and forward Mathieu Darche (Montreal).
“We can’t win it because we’re going to over-skill the opponent,” Boucher said. “Maxwell, Darche, Pyatt, Pacioretty – that’s four of our top six guys who are missing. Therefore, we can’t expect to win games by a big score.
“If we are going to win them, it’s going to be by one goal, it’s going to be in overtime, and that’s basically how we see it.”
David Desharnais led Hamilton’s scoring with 78 points, including 27 goals. Forward Brock Trotter was one point behind and notched 36 goals.
Manitoba has a number of players up with Vancouver, including defencemen Nolan Baumgartner and Evan Oberg and forwards Michael Grabner and Matt Pettinger. Oberg may be returned to the club any day.
Cody Hodgson, Vancouver’s first-round pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft (10th overall), was expected to join the Moose, but ongoing back problems forced the Canucks to nix his trip.
However, defenceman Lawrence Nycholat (back) and forward Peter Olvecky (upper body) should be good to go and the Anaheim Ducks sent forward Dan Sexton back to Manitoba.
“Whenever you get a guy (Sexton) who played in the NHL for most of the season, it’s going to help your offence,” said Moose centre Marco Rosa, who led his team in scoring with 55 points, including 22 goals.
“For us, that’s big for our power play and it’s big for guys’ confidence when you can play with a guy that’s been playing in the NHL.”
The key to Manitoba’s playoff success will be the sharpness of Cory Schneider, who was last season’s AHL goalie of the year.
The third-year netminder finished 35-23-2 with a 2.51 goals against average, beating his old franchise record for wins in a season.
“I think for any goalie, they say get traffic in front of them,” Bulldogs captain and defenceman Alex Henry said.
“It’s kind of the playoff way to get goals – just put the puck on the net.”
Schneider is ready for anything they throw his way.
“This year, we’ve had so many injuries and bodies in and out of the lineup and new faces,” Schneider said. “I think I’ve been one of the few consistent guys on the back end and I think that’s my job. That’s how I view it, that I have to be good every single night.
“I relish that. I enjoy it. I take it as a challenge. I never want to let my teammates down.”
Cedrick Desjardins will get the start in net for Hamilton. He went 29-9-4 with a league-leading 2.00 GAA while sharing duties with Sanford (23-11-3). The tandem helped the team allow the fewest goals against (182) in the league.
Bulldogs defenceman P.K. Subban, who was third in team scoring with 53 points, isn’t taking the Moose lightly.
“We know Manitoba is a good team and they’ve beaten us this year, so I don’t think we can afford to be overconfident and it’s going to take our best game to beat them,” he said.