As we all bask in the glow of the 2-0 series lead that our Vancouver Canucks hold over the Chicago Blackhawks, it gives us a chance to turn our attention to the Manitoba Moose for a moment. The kids on the farm begin their own quest for the (Calder) Cup, as they open their AHL North Division semifinal matchup this morning with a visit to Lake Erie to take on the Monsters (Noon ET, 9:00 PT). Game 2 goes tomorrow afternoon (3:00 ET, Noon PT).
The Lake Erie Monsters (2nd in the North, 44-28-3-5) finished 3 points ahead of the Manitoba Moose (3rd in the North, 43-30-1-6) to earn home ice advantage in the series. The Moose did hold a one point lead going into the final weekend when each team played two games, but the Moose lost both of them, at home nonetheless, while the Monsters won both of theirs and are the hotter of the two teams coming in.
So who are the Lake Erie Monsters? They are the farm team of the Colorado Avalanche, which means that since the Avs were terrible this season and are not participating in the NHL playoffs, their AHL eligible players are all down in Lake Erie. Mark Olver, Ryan Stoa and Shawn Belle were all assigned to Lake Erie following the Avs season, while Cody Hodgson and Victor Oreskovich have been summoned by the Canucks to help them in their run to the Stanley Cup. So it's advantage Lake Erie (and advantage Vancouver as CoHo has been great so far!) in this regard.
One bright spot for the Moose is that defenseman Chris Tanev will be ready to go. He was held out of the final two regular season games as the was still feeling the effects of that hit from Kyle Clifford, but he draws into the lineup today. But on the flip side, they will be without two solid veterans as forward Joel Perrault and defender Ryan Parent are both sidelined indefinitely with injuries.
Manitoba didn't display a ton of offense this season with 220 total goals, and only one player reached the 50 point mark (Sergei Shirokov with 58). Bill Sweatt finished second with 46 points, while defenseman Mark Flood was 3rd with 40. However, Lake Erie only scored 3 more goals on the season, and they also only had one player reach the 50 point mark, (Ben Walter with 70). But the aforementioned Olver and Stoa were having solid seasons before they were recalled to Colorado, so I would give them the nod for offensive depth.
The goaltending matchup will be interesting as well. Super-rookie Eddie Lack will likely be getting the start for Manitoba, but Tyler Weiman is a former Monster himself and can handle the duty if Lack falters. As for Lake Erie, they have a pretty solid tandem consisting of Jason Bacashihua and John Grahame, and I am not positive who they will start. Bacashihua played 42 games this season while Grahame started 34, and they each split the final four games of the season, but I would imagine that Bacashihua is the guy.
It will be interesting to see how the young Moose fare in this series. Billy Sweatt, Jordan Schroeder, Kevin Connauton, Kevin Clark, Yann Sauve, Aaron Volpatti, Chris Tanev, Stefan Schneider and Eddie Lack are all making their professional playoff debuts in this series. Veterans like Nolan Baumgartner, Garth Murray, Marco Rosa and Jason Jaffray will be leaned on heavily for their experience and hopefully the youngsters can perform.
In what could be the final playoff series for the Moose where they call Winnipeg home, the Moose will play these two games in Lake Erie before coming home for the next three games this week. My hope is that they come home with a split, but I know that the MTS Centre will be rocking on Tuesday regardless of what the series is at. Hockey fever is alive and well in Winnipeg, and I would imagine that with all of the Return of the Jets stuff going on that fans in the 'Peg will be looking to show the world that they are ready to fill the barn.
But before there is any chance of the NHL returning to Winnipeg, the Moose have some playoffs games to win. So here we go! Go Moose!