WINNIPEG – Manitoba Moose coach Scott Arniel doesn’t have to be reminded about the need to shut down the Grand Rapids Griffins’ top line.
When the American Hockey League clubs square off in Game 1 of the best-of-seven North Division final Friday in Winnipeg, much of the Moose’s focus will be on Justin Abdelkader, Ville Leino and Darren Haydar.
The trio combined for 31 points in the Griffins’ first-round win over Hamilton in six games.
“Certainly, their top unit with Haydar and (defenceman Garrett) Stafford, Abdelkader and Leino, those guys have been very effective,” said Arniel, whose team split four games against the Griffins in the regular season
Leino leads playoff scoring with 13 points, while Haydar is second with 10 points. Abdelkader, a rookie centre, scored six times in the first round, good for fourth in scoring.
“Remembering the games we’ve played against them, they do have some dangerous people,” said Arniel.
The same can also be said for Moose, who finished first overall in the AHL with a 50-23-1-6 record and eliminated the Toronto Marlies in six games in their semifinal.
“They didn’t finish first overall in the league by accident,” Griffins first-year coach Curt Fraser said Wednesday after his team’s practice in Grand Rapids.
The Griffins finished eighth in the league and third in the division, with a 43-25-6-6 record.
This is the third time in four seasons the Manitoba and Grand Rapids will meet in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Their last two series went to a Game 7. The Moose won the 2007 North Division semifinal, while the Griffins came out ahead in the 2006 North Division final.
Manitoba scored 21 goals in beating Toronto, including two five-goal games.
Arniel tends to shuffle his top line, but the constants have been centre Jason Krog and winger Jason Jaffray.
Krog leads his team in scoring with two goals and six assists, while Jaffray has a team-high five goals and one assist.
“Our team’s strength has been having depth and having all four lines contributing,” Krog said.
“That’s what helped us all year and that’s what helped us in the first round. Take a team like Toronto, it had one real scoring line and we were able to shut them down for most of the series.”
Fraser said Grand Rapids’ success comes from more than its top line, although the trio is both valuable and versatile.
“We’re pretty deep when it comes to producing offence,” said Fraser, whose club is the farm team of the NHL Detroit Red Wings.
“But one thing that this line has really done nicely is, not only are they producing offence, but they’re also very capable of playing against the other team’s best line”.
“They’re strong defensively, but they’re more than the one dynamic of being good offensively. They play the two-way game very well.”
Moose defencemen Maxime Fortunus and Mark Fistric will be counted on to help cut down Grand Rapids’ scoring chances.
“They’re fast and physical,” Fortunus said of the Griffins.
“They come hard on the forecheck so it’s going to be a real hard job for the defencemen. It’s up to us to get on the same page and make sure everybody works as a team.”
When it comes to goaltending, Manitoba should have the edge in the series with Cory Schneider, the AHL goalie of the year.
Schneider suited up for all his team’s playoff games and sports a 1.98 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. Grand Rapids goalie Jimmy Howard had a 2.49 GAA in his six first-round games and a .891 save percentage.
Both coaches predict a series that will be fast-paced, physical and disciplined.
“It’ll be two teams kind of pitted speed against speed,” Arniel said. “It should be entertaining.”
“It’s going to be two highly skilled teams that play real fast and also provide a physical element in the game,” said Fraser
Game 2 goes Saturday in Winnipeg, with Games 3, 4 and 5, if necessary, shifting to Grand Rapids. Games 6 and 7 would be in Winnipeg.