If you think the Stanley Cup playoffs are a nightly roller-coaster ride, you’d really like the American League’s Calder Cup playoffs.
The two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears are sitting on the sideline; the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Portland Pirates, first and second overall in the league this season, both face playoff elimination; and the Peoria Rivermen succumbed meekly in a four-game sweep to the Houston Aeros.
Also among the surprises are the Manitoba Moose, who are perhaps the American League’s most Jekyl-and-Hyde club and an outfit that perplexes even its wise and highly experienced coach, Claude Noel.
The Moose, a club expected to compete for the Calder Cup at season’s start, staged an uneven year plagued by injuries, constant movement to and from the parent Vancouver Canucks and disappointing seasons from players expected to take key roles.
While the Moose registered a solid 93 points, they did not impress down the regular-season stretch and needed until the final week to finally wrap up a playoff berth.
Manitoba then proceeded to bend to the upstart Lake Erie Monsters in the first round. The youthful Monsters, one of the AHL’s hottest clubs at the end of the regular season, put the Moose in a 3-1 series deficit. A second consecutive first round ouster looked likely for the Moose and multiple changes in the Manitoba net nicely summed up the state of the team.
But just when all looked lost for Noel’s club, the Moose put up a Game 5 home victory against the Monsters and then headed to Cleveland, where they took Games 6 and 7 to steal the series and advance to the second round against their old nemesis from Hamilton.
For the second round, the Moose reverted to their bad side. Manitoba went to Copps Coliseum and were whipped by the Bulldogs 4-1 and 4-2 to send the series to Winnipeg with the Moose down 2-0 in the series and looking again like a defeated club.
Naturally, for a predictably unpredictable club, the Moose put the boots to the Bulldogs in Game 3. Manitoba jumped out to a 4-2 lead, survived a late Hamilton push and won it by a 5-4 count.
Then in a sluggish Game 4 effort by both clubs, the Moose trailed Hamilton deep into the third period and were facing Drew MacIntyre, one of the AHL’s most difficult goaltenders to break. But burly winger Guillaume Desbiens pushed a loose rebound past MacIntyre with 2:02 left in the third period to even the score.
Then, quiet centerman Mario Bliznak won Game 4 for the Moose with a pretty goal off a feed from Jordan Schroeder in the second overtime.
“What I liked most about it was that we found a way to win the game,” Noel said.
In all, the Moose have managed to shut down Hamilton’s top line of Dustin Boyd, Nigel Dawes and Aaron Palushaj. Dawes ranked second in the AHL with 41 goals this regular season, but he has managed just one goal and two assists in the first four games of this series. Boyd owns only a pair of assists. The Moose have held the trio to a combined five points over the past three games and the line was quite silent during Game 4.
So now the Moose have an opportunity to take a 3-2 series lead back to Hamilton, a place the Moose seemed unlikely to return to after the first two games of the series.
While stout Manitoba rookie goaltender Eddie Lack has struggled at times this post-season, he assembled a solid performance in Game 4 and a hot Lack means trouble for the Bulldogs, particularly if the Moose are able to hold Hamilton’s top line in check.
True to form, Noel had a different team in front of him from Game 3 to Game 4.
“This wasn’t the same team that I was coaching (in Game 3),” Noel said after Wednesday’s Game 4.
• Milwaukee holds a 2-1 series lead over the Houston Aeros. Game 4 goes Thursday in Houston. The Admirals have gained the services of top prospect Ryan Ellis, who won Ontario League top player and top defenseman honors this season with the Windsor Spitfires.
• Wilkes-Barre/Scranton finds itself in a 3-1 series hole to the Charlotte Checkers. The go-go Checkers, who tied for second in the circuit in goals this season, have shown they are capable of tightening up defensively and have limited the Penguins to six goals over the first four games of the series in front of Mike Murphy. The second-year goaltender took over the Checkers’ net job from Justin Pogge in the first round. The clubs resume their series Friday at Charlotte.
• The Binghamton Senators continue to frustrate some of the Eastern Conference’s top clubs. After erasing a 3-1 series deficit to Manchester and taking the first round, the Senators have put the Pirates into a 3-2 series hole heading back to Portland. The Pirates have gained the services of sniper Mark Mancari and goaltender Jhonas Enroth from the ousted Buffalo Sabres. Enroth turned in a solid 35-save effort in a must-win Game 5 setting on Tuesday and Mancari has delivered six goals in eight playoff games this spring.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world’s second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.