WINNIPEG - Hit them early, hit them hard, hit them often.
That will be the Manitoba Moose's game plan as they host the Houston Aeros on Friday night in Game 1 of the American Hockey League's best-of-seven Western Conference final.
Manitoba enjoyed eight days of rest after sweeping Grand Rapids in the second round, while Houston needed seven games for the second series in a row. Moose coach Scott Arniel plans to take full advantage of the rest factor - particularly when it comes to the physical side of the game.
"I thought our physical play was a big factor in (our first) two series," Arniel said of the games against Toronto and Grand Rapids. "We have to make sure that tired or not, that we're banging them every chance we get, we don't let them off the hook.
"The tempo of the game, we've got to get it up. We have to have that tempo and that pace way up so that they've got to come up to our level."
Coach Kevin Constantine's Aeros won their first-round series against Peoria in a Game 7 on the road. Their final win against Milwaukee came after they bounced back from a 7-0 loss in Game 6.
"It's very impressive," Arniel said. "(Houston will) be a team that is battle-ready, a team that's obviously gone through a lot and we're going to have to make sure that we're at the top of our game right from the beginning of the series."
Arniel isn't sure if the extra rest is going to result in a major advantage for the Moose.
"You can take it both ways," Arniel said. "We're rested, we've got our injury guys back up and healthy again, we're in our home building. All those are positives for us.
"The other side, (the Aeros have) been kind of playing this game every other day for the last three weeks so their game is probably exactly where they want it to be right now."
Manitoba won all four games against Houston this season, including its last one in a shootout on Dec. 4. The Moose were AHL regular-season champions with 107 points (50-23-1-6), while the Aeros finished with 87 points (38-31-2-9).
Manitoba, the Vancouver Canucks' affiliate, has been in the conference final twice, losing both times to Chicago. Their last appearance was 2004-05.
Houston, the affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, is in the conference final for the first time since 2002-03, when it went on to capture its first Calder Cup championship.
The Moose plan to watch plenty of film on Houston goalie Anton Khudobin, who is a bit of an unknown around the AHL. Khudobin, called up from the East Coast Hockey League in the new year, has a 2.48 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 14 playoff games.
"We're going to do the same thing that we've done against every goaltender - make life hard on him and try to get traffic, try and throw everything on net and see what happens," said Moose winger Jason Jaffray.
Manitoba will rely on AHL goaltender of the year Cory Schneider, who sits second in league playoff stats with a 1.69 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in 10 games.
Houston's offensive weapons include winger Krys Kolanos and centre Corey Locke, who leads the league with 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 14 games. Kolanos has 11 points.
Jason Krog is Manitoba's top scorer with four goals and 11 points. Jaffray is second with six goals and three assists.
The Moose also added centre Cody Hodgson of the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion to their playoff roster. Vancouver's first pick (10th overall) in the 2008 NHL entry draft was this season's OHL most outstanding and most sportsmanlike player of the year.
Arniel isn't sure how much ice time he'll give Hodgson, who has been practising with the fourth line.
"The only thing I told him was that he's going to get an opportunity to play and everything after that is going to be based on how he plays," Arniel said.