Being swept by the Rockford IceHogs in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs was a harsh end to what was a progressive season for the Manitoba Moose.
After dwelling in the basement of the AHL standings from 2015-2017, the Jets’ AHL affiliate rose from unknown, to not only relevant, but among the top team’s in the AHL, when healthy.
In fact, they were the AHL’s top team in the first-half of the season.
They even went on a span of 16-games (from November 15th to December 22nd) without a regulation loss. At the start of the second half of the season, the Moose appeared to be a juggernaut, and a legitimate favourite to make a lengthy Calder Cup run.
“That’s the American Hockey League. When you’re healthy, it makes a huge difference. Not only were we healthy, but the Jets were healthy [at that time]. We had our full lineup, the Jets had their full lineup, we were rolling. We were playing up to our potential,” said Moose head coach Pascal Vincent at Sunday’s locker room clean out.
With a healthy lineup at the helm, the Moose were scary.
They had bona-fide stars at the AHL level, who were also promising Jets’ prospects, in Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton and Sami Niku.
Between the pipes, they had Michael Hutchinson and Eric Comrie–a 1-2 punch that was up there with the best of the best in the AHL. Plus, a veteran core, made up of Patrice Cormier, Darren Kramer, Buddy Robinson, among others—that set the tempo, and lead by example.
But by mid-January, a mere few games after their dominant 16-game stretch, the first domino fell in what would end up being the downfall of the Moose’s season.
On January 19th, Roslovic, who certainly was deserving of a promotion, was called up by the Jets. Roslovic fared well in the NHL, and he’s been with the Jets ever since his mid-January recall.
Without Roslovic leading the charge for the Moose, the Jets’ AHL affiliate went from the AHL’s best in the first half of the season, to being a .500 hockey team for the second half of the season.
Before Roslovic recall: 25-9-2-2
After Roslovic recall: 17-17-2-2
Then in March, the team was thrown with another curveball. The Jets needed goaltending help, desperately, and from March 14th-March 26th, they had both Hutchinson and Comrie on their roster. The Moose tread water through that span, with a 3-4-0 record.
“To be successful in a season, you have to have the ability to adjust. We were able to adjust,” said Vincent, who was name the AHL’s coach of the year for the 2017-2018 season. “We were able to adjust and we were able to survive. We were not winning at the same rate. But we were able to survive.”
When the Moose wobbled into the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, they appeared to be a shell of what they were just a few months ago. They were set to face the Grand Rapids Griffins, the defending Calder Cup Champions.
The odds were stacked against them
But even without Jack Roslovic, even without Michael Hutchinson between the pipes and even without Mason Appleton for games three-five, the Moose prevailed, and knocked off the Griffins in five games.
“In order to beat those guys, we came together as a team,” said Vincent. “We won that series, based on guts. We had to pay the price, in every way, to win that series. Mentally and physically. For our guys to come together the way they did, it’s pretty impressive.”
Next up for the Moose was the Rockford IceHogs. A team that, in contrast to the Moose, was provided reinforcements in virtue of their parent club (the Chicago Blackhawks), not making the NHL playoffs.
The Moose were still without Roslovic, Appleton and Hutchinson. And to make matters worst, Nic Petan, a point-per-game player for the Moose during the regular season, appeared to be playing through an injury, which limited his output in the second round (one assist through four games).
The Moose were man-handled by the IceHogs, losing all four games of the best-of-seven series.
While the end-result wasn’t what the players within the room, the coaching staff, or the organization wanted, there’s plenty of positives to take away from the Moose’s 2017-2018 campaign.
“We were the last club standing with the [NHL] club still in the playoffs and we should be proud of that,” said Vincent.
Unquestionably, the Moose’s main purpose is to develop future Jets. This season, they surely played a big part in doing that.
Roslovic was challenged to take on a bigger role with the team, playing on the team’s penalty kill, power play and virtually all situations. With each passing game, it was apparent he was ready for the next level.
Appleton bursted on to the scene in his first professional season, recording 66 points in 76 games and being named the AHL’s most outstanding rookie. The 22-year-old forward saw some time at centre, too.
Niku’s 54 points pegged him one-point shy of the league-lead for defenceman scoring. He, too, won an individual accolade–taking him the AHL’s most outstanding defenceman award. Niku was also a key cog on the man-advantage, as he quarterbacked the team’s first unit.
Furthermore, aside from the progression of the organization’s top prospects, the Moose built a winning culture–something that’s paramount to development.
Players like Chase De Leo and JC Lipon–who were here during the Moose’s season’s to forget (2015-2016 and 2016-2017)–got the opportunity to play playoff hockey. De Leo, in particular, relished the opportunity, and his eight points through nine games lead all Moose skaters in scoring.
Things came full circle for the Moose during their 2017-2018 campaign. Their top-tier prospects played in a competitive environment and in meaningful hockey games. Their veteran players did their jobs. The coaching staff and the developmental staff did theirs, too.
Without a doubt, this past season was the Moose’s most successful yet.
– Darren Kramer, one of the team’s prominent leaders over the last two years, announced his retirement from professional hockey on Saturday.
“We cant measure what he brought to this team,” said Vincent. “You’re going to look at his stats and see [that] the numbers will not give you a real appreciation on what he brought to the team. He brought people into the fight. On game days, even if he wasn’t playing, he brought people into the fight on practice day. Keeping the team even-keel.
“Some people have the ability to keep a team together when its really difficult. To do it, when you’re not even playing and a healthy scratch day-in and day-out is a special skill.”
– Peter Stoykeywch has likely played his last game as a Moose. One source, close to Stoykewych, confirmed that the 25-year-old defenceman will be heading overseas.
All quotes are courtesy of Moose TV