Like the Canucks, the Moose turned tragedy into triumph in putting together a spectacular season that few predicted.
For anyone too engulfed in the Stanley Cup playoffs to pay attention to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Championships, Manitoba did more than simply make noise during its seventh playoff appearance.
The Moose became the team to beat.
Manitoba surged into the playoffs with the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s 2008-09 regular season points champion in its pocket and swiftly went to work on the Toronto Marlies.
Six games later the Moose advanced to the second round and a four-game sweep after that – the franchise’s first – Manitoba disposed of Grand Rapids and was off to the Western Conference Finals.
Manitoba was no match for Houston winning the series 4-2. That vaulted the Moose to the Calder Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
Up against the heavily favored Hershey Bears, a team with nine championship and 18 finals appearances on its resume, the antlered underdogs gave it their all and redefined valiant with their stout-hearted attempt to capture the team’s first championship.
The Bears took the title in six games leaving the Moose to second-guess their efforts in the championship series, but it shouldn’t be long before everyone realizes and appreciates what a fantastic season it was.
Let’s start with the obvious.
The 2008-09 Moose came together like no team before it in putting together the most successful regular season the franchise has ever had. Manitoba’s record of 50-23-1-6 was good for 107 points and a first place finish in the North Division, Western Conference and the entire league.
Four franchise marks were set this season, including overall wins (50), road wins (25), points (107) and goals against (188).
It is said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that rang especially true in Manitoba because although many players had breakout seasons, they never lost the team first mentality that made winning an option.
Personal success was the story of the year on the farm with almost every player outdoing himself in one way or another.
For some, like hulking fourth-liner Pierre-Cedric Labrie, the goal was to simply continue climbing the ladder, soaking up as much information and experience as possible along the way.
For others it wasn’t a matter of learning, it was time to shine and Cory Schneider
and Michael Grabner did just that.
When the Canucks drafted Schneider 26th overall in 2004, it was clear the young netminder would need time to develop. Like a teenager hitting a mean growth spurt, Schneider started shooting up the ranks midway through the 2007-08 season, his first in Manitoba.
He went 13-2-1 over his last 16 starts that season and carried that over into a career year that has him labeled as the future of goaltending in Vancouver.
Schenider was the recipient of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender this season for not only setting new team records for wins (28), goals against average (2.04) and save percentage (0.928), but for reeling off a 13-game winning streak from October 17, 2008 to January 10, 2009.
That stretch, combined with his short stint in Vancouver from call-up and stellar post-season play, has most people believing Schneider is ready for the NHL and they appear to be on the ball.
Michael Grabner’s stock also rose significantly this season, thanks in large part to his career high 48 points (30-18-48) and plus-22 rating. The real Grabner Canucks fans have been anxious to see came to life in the playoffs, it was then that he was near unstoppable with 17 points (10-7-17) in 20 games.
He disappeared a bit in the Calder Cup Final with only two points over the last five games, but finished with five points (3-2-5) in six contests overall.
Other Moose who flourished this season were Jason Krog - he led Manitoba in scoring with 86 points (30-56-86); Jason Jaffray - who made up for a dismal regular season showing with a stellar playoff run of 19 points (9-10-19); Shaun Heshka - who patrolled the blueline with authority and contributed 26 points (3-23-26); and although his time on the prairies was brief, even Cody Hodgson turned heads with six points (2-4-6) in 11 games.
Hodgson is too young to play a full season in Manitoba next year, so this was just a brief cameo appearance to wet the appetites of the Canucks.
Not to be forgotten is Moose bench boss Scott Arniel who, in his third season as head coach, was the beneficiary of the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s most outstanding coach.
Arniel has indicated that although there are NHL coaching positions available, he would like to stay in Manitoba next season.
Potential free agents Jason Krog, Jason Jaffray, Nolan Baumgartner
and Mark Cullen, who become unrestricted free agents on July 1, have also all indicated they’d like to remain with the Moose.
If Manitoba is able to retain many of the key pieces that led it to an unforgettable season this year, next season those pieces might just fall into place for an organization that is well on its way to becoming one of the AHL’s most elite.