It’s inexperience versus experience as the Manitoba Moose and Hershey Bears prepare to face off in the Calder Cup Finals when the American Hockey League’s 73rd championship begins Saturday in Winnipeg.
This is the first time in almost a decade that the best regular-season teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences will meet in the finals; the Moose were awarded the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s 2008-09 regular season points champion, they nipped the Bears by one point.
These teams have never met before in the playoffs and they didn’t even collide this season so head-to-head there isn’t any recent history to build off of.
The Moose, who have never been to the Calder Cup finals, are led offensively by a dynamite top line of 2008 Calder Cup winner Jason Krog, journeyman Jason Jaffray and youngster Michael Grabner. All three are in the top 15 in playoff scoring and have combined for 20 goals and 24 assists in 46 games.
Manitoba’s offensive depth includes contributions from Guillaume Desbiens, Mike Keane, Mark Cullen, Alex Bolduc and Raymond Sawada, among others, who have all chipped in with timely goals this post-season.
Defensively it’s the same characters that helped the Moose win the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for allowing the fewest goals this season that have continued to thwart the opposition in the playoffs. Nolan Baumgartner
, Mark Fistric, Maxime Fortunus and Shaun Heshka are the big names, with Nathan McIver also working into the line-up now and again.
Between the pipes it’s all Cory Schneider
all the time for Manitoba and the 2008-09 winner of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender has yet to disappoint.
Schneider hasn’t stolen any games for the Moose to this point, but he’s been rock steady and oober reliable and with Manitoba’s firepower upfront, that’s been just what the doctor ordered.
A trip to the Calder Cup Finals is nothing new to the Hershey Bears, the farm team of the Washington Capitals, as this is their third appearance in the last four years and 21st in team history.
The Bears, who joined the AHL in 1938 and are the AHL’s longest-existing team, won it all in 2005-06 giving the franchise nine Calder Cup Championships.
This year’s edition is led by the likes of 2008-09 AHL MVP and regular-season scoring champion Alexandre Giroux, youngster Chris Bourque and former Carolina Hurricanes centre Keith Aucoin; all three players are in the top seven in playoff scoring.
Former Canucks and Moose defenceman Bryan Helmer is the veteran leading the defence, he’s followed by on-again off-again NHLer Staffan Kronwall and six-year Bears mainstay Dean Arsene.
Rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth has played unbelievably well for Hershey, he’s allowed one more goal than Schneider but has three shutouts and his save percentage is a pinch higher.
Overall, the Moose and Bears are tied in playoff goals with 52, while Manitoba has given up 33 goals against to Hershey’s 35.
When it comes to special teams the only distinct advantage is in penalty killing where the Moose sit third overall stopping the opposition 87% of the time to Hershey’s 12th ranked, 78% kill.
On the power play the Bears are fourth overall at 20% with Manitoba just behind them at 19%.
And finally, a Hershey Bears believe it or not: between 1932 and 1936, the Bears were known as the B’ars and the Chocolate B’ars, before they decided on Bears in 1936. Good choice. HOW THE MOOSE CAME TO BE
The history of the Manitoba Moose begins back in fall of 1993. It was then that the NHL moved the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas leaving the Land of 10,000 Lakes without a professional hockey team.
A season later the Minnesota Moose were born. Playing in the International Hockey League, the Moose temporarily filled the void left by the North Stars, but it just wasn’t the same.
While Minnesota was trying its best to embrace the Moose, the NHL shockingly moved the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, allowing them to become the Coyotes.
This all played out following the 1995-96 season, which incidentally was the last in Minnesota for the Moose.
Hockey starved Manitobans, still donning Jets jerseys 24/7, didn’t think the NHL was about to give them a team back any time soon, so they settled for the next best thing: an International Hockey League franchise.
The Minnesota Moose became the Manitoba Moose in the blink of an eye and they began play at the Winnipeg Arena in 1996-97.
When the IHL folded in 2001 after 56 years, six teams merged into the American Hockey League, including the Moose, who then became the official farm team of the Vancouver Canucks.
Manitoba began playing at the MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg in 2004. TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
The Moose were bounced around from the Midwest Division to the Northwest, back to the Midwest before playing two seasons in the West while in the IHL, enjoying moderate success.
Manitoba won 194 of 410 reuglar season games over five seasons, yet only finished second or higher in their division once.
Things didn’t change overnight after joining the AHL, the Moose finished fourth, second then sixth in their division before things gradually turned around starting in 2004-05.
Over the past five seasons, Manitoba has won the North Division twice, including this year when they were crowned regular season league champions, and placed third the other three years.
The Moose have only missed the playoffs three times since 1994-95 and they’ve advanced past the first round six out of 11 tries.
The second round had been a different beast prior to this year. Manitoba was swept by the Chicago Wolves in round three back in 2004-05; this season marks the first time the Moose have advanced to the Calder Cup Finals. BENCH BOSSES
A who’s who list of coaches have reigned over the Moose starting with Randy Carlyle who was with the team from 1996 to 2001 before becoming assistant coach of the Washington Capitals.
"The Steamer" Stan Smyl then became head coach for three seasons before Carlyle was brought back in for one season. He then moved on to Anaheim whose Ducks were still mighty at the time.
That opened the door for Alain Vigneault who led the charge for the 2005-06 season. When Vancouver Canucks head coach Marc Crawford was relieved following that same season, Vigneault was shipped to the West Coast to replace him.
Former Winnipeg Jets forward Scott Arniel became the team’s fourth coach when he took over prior to the 2006-07 season. This is his third season behind the bench and for leading Manitoba to a franchise high 50 wins and 107 points this year, he was awarded the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s most outstanding coach. THE BIG PLAYERS
Seven players who finished the 2008-09 season with the Canucks cut their teeth with the Moose. That list includes Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler
, Kevin Bieksa
, Alex Edler, Mason Raymond
, Rick Rypien and Jannik Hansen
Other notable players who have sported the antlers over the years are Fedor Fedorov, Alex Auld, Fred Brathwaite, Johan Hedberg, Steve Kariya, Sheldon Kennedy, Manny Legace, Xavier Majic (he only played one game, but what a great name) and of course, coach Scott Arniel, who was in Manitoba from 1996-99.
The argument over who the best player to ever emerge from the Moose is best saved for another day, but there’s no questioning who’s had the biggest impact on the team since he began playing in Manitoba five seasons ago.
After 16 years in the NHL, 1,161 games and 470 points, veteran Mike Keane joined the Moose in 2005-06 intent on playing out his remaining days in his hometown of Winnipeg.
He brought the experience of three Stanley Cup championships (’93, ’96 & 99) with him and has been as positive an influence as one player can be on a franchise. Everyone from Jason Krog to P.C. Labrie have been cashing in on his wealth of knowledge.
It might surprise you to hear that none of the aforementioned players lead the Moose in any relevant historical categories. Defenceman Brett Hauer, a Canucks drafted pick from 1989, leads in overall points (251) and power play goals (29) and other than that it’s all about Jimmy Roy.
The left-winter played nine seasons in Manitoba and currently stands as the team’s al-time leader in games played (603), goals (102), game-winning goals (17), shorthanded goals (10), shots on goal (1096) and delightfully enough, penalty minutes (1434).
On the goaltending side of things, Alex Auld owns the career mark for wins (69) and shutouts (10), otherwise it’s Cory Schneider
territory. This year he set new team single season highs for wins (28), goals against average (2.04) and save percentage (.928). THE CALVES
Two players have been extremely potent for the Moose during their run to the Calder Cup while another is just getting his feet wet, but the trio will all be in Vancouver before long.
Forwards Michael Grabner, 14th overall pick in 2006, Cody Hodgson, 10th overall pick in 2008, and goaltender Cory Schneider
, 26th overall pick in 2004, are the big three that Canucks fans have had their sights on all season.
So far they've all been performing admirably with Schneider having won 12 of 16 starts with a goals against average of 2.03 and a save percentage of .924, Grabner has a career-high 12 points in 14 playoff games, including two game-winning goals, and although Hodgson has only played six games, he’s turned Manitoba’s fourth line into a legitimate scoring threat. The youngster has one goal and two assists.