WINNIPEG - The Manitoba Moose finally found a way to beat Houston's hot goaltender and stifling penalty-killing unit, and more importantly finally found a way into the American Hockey League final.
Michael Grabner scored the winning goal on a third-period power play and the Moose advanced to their first Calder Cup final after a 3-1 victory over the Aeros on Monday.
Grabner took a cross-ice pass from Nolan Baumgartner while Aeros' captain Clayton Stoner was off for high-sticking and drilled a long shot past Houston goaltender Matt Climie to break a 1-1 tie. It was his seventh goal of the post-season.
"We kept pushing and finally broke through," said Grabner. "Our main focus was also not to get scored upon. You've got to play defence first. That's how you get the scoring chances when you come back up ice."
The Moose won the Western Conference final in six games. Manitoba won the first three games of the series but Houston made it interesting, winning the next two games in overtime.
"You have to give credit to Houston," said Moose coach Scott Arneil. "They never quit."
Aeros coach Kevin Constantine said he was proud of his club's work ethic all season.
"We felt good about what we accomplished this year," he said. "We've been good penalty killers all year. Manitoba did a better job against us than any other team in the playoffs."
The Moose will face the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup final. The Bears beat the Providence Bruins 5-2 earlier Monday to win the Eastern Conference final in five games.
Game 1 of the final is Saturday in Winnipeg.
Matt Pope and Mark Fistric also scored for the Moose in front an MTS Centre crowd of 9,279.
Corey Locke had the lone goal for Houston.
Corey Schneider turned aside 16 shots for Manitoba while Climie, who sparkled in Houston's net, blocked 33 shots.
Schneider lauded the fans for their loyalty and support throughout the play.
"What an atmosphere in here," he said. "This is the best place to play in the league."
Manitoba outshot Houston 13-5 in the hard-hitting and fast skating opening period in which the teams split eight minor penalties.
The Aeros, playing 4-on-3, opened the scoring at 12:52 of the first period. Krys Kolanos fed a cross-ice pass from the left face-off circle to Locke, who swept the puck into the open side with Schneider caught out of position.
The Moose tied the game less than two minutes later. Jason Jaffray fed a behind-the-net pass to Pope, who sent a rising wrist shot over Climie's outstretched glove.
Late in the period the Moose failed to capitalize on a two-man-advantage which they held for 92 seconds.
Manitoba outshot Houston 15-9 in the second period, forcing Climie to make a number of spectacular saves. To add to Manitoba's frustration, two shots rang off the post when the Aeros netminder appeared to be beaten.
Houston's penalty-killing unit, which had been solid throughout the playoffs and was ranked third in post-season play entering Monday, stood tall and kept the game tied at 1-1 through 40 minutes.
However, neither Climie or Houston's penalty killers could hold off the Moose for much longer. After Grabner's power-play goal at 9:46 of the third period gave Manitoba the lead, Fistric's long rising shot from the blue-line sailed over Climie's shoulder at 12:07 to all but guarantee a Calder Cup final appearance for Manitoba.
Constantine said his goaltender kept the Aeros in the game.
"We didn't play great in the second," he said, "but Climie gave us a chance. It came down to a key power play in the third."
With three minutes remaining in the third period Houston coach Kevin Constantine replaced Climie for an extra attacker, but the move had no effect on the scoresheet.
Notes: The Moose have lost 11 of their last 12 post-season overtime games. The Aeros have won all three of their overtime games in the 2009 Calder Cup playoffs. ... Locke leads all players in both points (23) and goals (11) with 14 of those playoff points including six goals coming on the power play. ... Houston finished third in the West Division with fewer wins (38) than any other playoff qualifier. ... Climie spent most of 2008-09 in the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads fashioning a 27-12-1 record and GAA of 2.30. He won two of three games in three appearances with the NHL Stars posting a GAA of 2.92. .. Throughout regular-season play the Moose held a 4-0 edge over the Aeros.