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Previewing the Manitoba Moose and Grand Rapids Griffins 1st Round Series

A preview of the Moose 1st round series with the Griffins.

For the first time since relocation the Manitoba Moose have qualified for the post-season. After a season which saw tremendous highs and almost equal lows, the Moose get ready to face last season’s Calder Cup Champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL Detroit), in a best-of-5 series which kicks off Saturday afternoon at Bell-MTS Place.  The Moose fell short against the Griffins during the regular season going 2-5-1-0 against their Central division rivals from Michigan although the two teams haven’t played each other since mid February.

Moose vs Griffins

Photo Credit: Colby Spence

Tale of the Tape

The Moose finished the season with a record of 42-26-4-4, good for 92 points in the 76 game AHL season. They had a fantastic +55 goal differential off the strength of 253 goals scored and only 198 against. Meanwhile, the Griffins finished just 1 point ahead, with a similar record of 42-25-2-7, a +27 goal differential (237 GF, 210 GA), and 5 fewer regulation/overtime wins (36) than the Moose (41). For what it’s worth, the Griffins come into the series with more “momentum”, ending the year 7-1-2, while the Moose stumble into the post-season with a record of 3-7-0.

Special Teams in Focus

Special teams will be a key battle in this series, and if we put stock in the season’s results, the Griffins are likely to have the advantage. That’s because the Moose have a strong proclivity towards the penalty box – they took the most PIM’s in the Western Conference with 1120, and were shorthanded 343 times on the season – 4th most in the AHL, and 46 more times than the Griffins (297). And while the Moose penalty kill is roughly average at 83.1% (15th), the Griffins boast one of the league’s top powerplays, at 20.3%, fourth in the league. On the other hand, the Moose have the league’s second best powerplay (20.8%), but the Griffins may be able to neutralize that in part with the league’s fourth best penalty kill (84.5%).

Key Players

The Griffins had 5 players who scored 20 or more goals this season, including former Jets winger Eric Tangradi, who popped in 31. They were led in scoring by AHL veteran, Ben Street, who has consistently produced big numbers in the AHL (240 points in his last 252 games), and continued that this year with 65 points in 73 games – tied for 5th in the AHL. The Griffins retain four of their top 5 regular season scorers from last year’s Calder Cup run, along with most of their defenders, and their goaltender, Jared Coreau. They’ve also added dynamic defenceman, Filip Hronek, who had a stellar rookie season with 11 goals and 39 points in 67 games, good for second in rookie defenceman scoring behind Manitoba’s own, Sami Niku.

Sami Niku with puck

Photo Credit: Colby Spence

Meanwhile, a large portion of the Moose attack was led by rookies, including the AHL’s rookie of the year, Mason Appleton, and the AHL’s defenceman of the year, Sami Niku. They finished one-two in team scoring, with 66 points and 54 points respectively, with Appleton finishing fourth overall in the AHL, and Niku finishing second among all defencemen. Together, they were two of the three most dynamic offence threats on the team in the post-Roslovic era, with the other being third year pro, Nic Petan. The Moose certainly have a deep offence, with three 20-goal scorers (Robinson, Appleton, and Cormier), and a whopping ten 15-goal scorers. However, health may be a concern, as two of their key top-6 forwards, Patrice Cormier and Nic Petan, are coming off concussions which kept them out of game action down the stretch; Petan has only played one game since March (the last game of the season on April 15th), while Cormier played the final two games of the season.

The Moose, Post-Roslovic 

The Moose were an absolutely dominant force early in the season, ending 2017 in first place in the AHL. However, things changed following the Jets’ recall of Jack Roslovic. He played his final two games on December 22nd and January 14th; the team’s record in his 32 games was 24-5-3, but without him, their record was just 18-21-5. There were certainly other factors at play – the Moose lost both Eric Comrie and Michael Hutchinson for long stretches of time – Hutchinson, one of the top goaltenders in the AHL this season – didn’t play between January 27th and March 28th, while the talented young Comrie was away between March 11th and April 8th. Other key players like Nic Petan and Brendan Lemieux were limited to 52 and 51 games respectively due to call-ups and injuries. And there was a specific stretch between March 17th and 31st where the Moose lost 7 of 8 games due to an incredibly depleted lineup which featured ECHL players galore, with almost half of their forward lineup being filled by players outside of their regular top-12. Still, there’s no question that Roslovic was a key ingredient in the team’s early season success, if not the most important piece.

Moose Starting Goaltender

A quick glance at the numbers would tell you that Michael Hutchinson is likely to get the first start in goal, based on his record of 17-5-1, 2.08 G.A.A, and .935 save %. But it’s more likely that Eric Comrie will start game 1 based on his position in the organization. There was a time where Comrie was seen as the potential answer in goal for the Jets long-term, and while that mantle has certainly been claimed by Connor Hellebuyck, Comrie is still seen as a potential back-up in the coming years. While Comrie’s numbers don’t match Hutchinson’s – 18-13-3, 2.58 G.A.A, .916 save % – his play has been strong through most of this season, and his numbers were definitely impacted negatively by playing a larger number of games in the second half (relative to Hutchinson), where the team in front of him was much weaker. Comrie also has some big game experience, playing for the Canadian World Junior squad which claimed gold in 2015. (While he didn’t play in the gold medal game, he backstopped Canada to a huge win over the US in round robin play).

Moose the Underdog?

Despite being so close in the standings, the Moose should go into this series as the slight underdog. They’re facing the reigning Calder Cup champs, have several key players who are either coming off recent injuries, or are still out (like veteran Julian Melchiori). To make matters worse, they may be missing one of their key offensive drivers – stud defenceman, Sami Niku, who is on recall with the Jets. The Moose have strong depth, but they’re facing a Griffins squad whose NHL team – the Detroit Red Wings – isn’t in the playoffs, meaning all their AHL-eligible players are back with the Griffins. Imagine a Moose squad with Niku and Roslovic available and this is a totally different ballgame.

Game Action

The first two games of this series take place this Saturday and Sunday at Bell-MTS Place, with both games beginning at 2 pm. Following that, the series shifts to Grand Rapids, Michigan for up to three more games. If you can’t make it in person, you can catch the first two games of this series on TSN 1290 radio, featuring Moose play-by-play announcer Mitch Peacock.

Keep up to date

As always stay tuned for the latest Manitoba Moose news by keeping it locked to our web site and on social media including Twitter | Facebook | Instagram.  You can also follow me on twitter as well (@PegPeteHockey).