The Manitoba Moose tragically fell two points short of a Calder Cup Playoffs berth this season, but man, did they make a heck of a run down the stretch.
Related: Manitoba Moose March in Review
The team wasn’t even supposed to be in the conversation, but they fought for a spot until the AHL season’s very last weekend.
Despite missing out on the postseason, the Moose — dead last at Christmas and one of the AHL’s biggest second-half success stories — played inspired and heady hockey in April, posting a 5-2-0-0 record, but their opponents were just a little bit hotter.
“Birdman,” Special Teams Take Two Against Condors
With the Milwaukee Admirals, Rockford IceHogs, Texas Stars, Iowa Wild all in a logjam and jockeying for Central Division playoff spots, every game was critical.
The Moose began April with their final homestand of the season, a four-gamer beginning with two against the Pacific Division-leading Bakersfield Condors.
With Eric Comrie still on the Winnipeg Jets due to Laurent Brossoit’s injury, it was up to puck-handling, flashy goaltender Mikhail Berdin to backstop the team in the pair of ultra-important weekday matchups.
“If you haven’t yet taken in a game that Mikhail Berdin is playing goal in you are missing out,” local radio personality and hockey analyst Dave Minuk has said of the Russian rookie. “His glove hand alone is worth the price of admission.”
Berdin put up a brick wall in the first game, turning aside 41 shots in a 3-1 victory. The Moose penalty killers were…well, killer…going a perfect seven-for-seven, and their power play was equally as strong, as Seth Griffith, Logan Shaw, and Mason Appleton all scored on the man advantage.
With his goal, Griffith reached the 50-point plateau for the third time in his AHL career.
The trends of strong special teams play and strong goaltending continued in the rematch, as the Moose managed to kill off a Marko Dano checking from behind major in the first and early second and Logan Shaw one-timed his team-leading 27th goal (a mirror image of the goal he scored a night prior) on a late second-period power play.
With the game tied 2-2, Shaw set up the game-winner with just 3:28 left in the third. Coming from behind the net, he put a quick backhander on Condors’ goalie Dylan Wells that generated a rebound, which Mason Appleton pounced on and potted.
The massive goal meant the Moose retained the fourth spot — tied with the Admirals with 79 points — but possessing more regulation plus overtime wins.
Feeling the Heat
With five games left and sitting in the fourth-and-final playoff spot (tied with the Admirals with 79 points apiece but possessing more ROW), the Moose welcomed the Stockton Heat into town for their final two home games of the season.
The first game was a goalie duel, where Berdin and Heat goaltender Jon Gilles frustrated would-be goal-scorers with outstanding performances. Mason Appleton scored 3:09 into the first period, and that early goal ended up being the only goal as Berdin stopped all 26 shots he faced for his second shutout of the season.
The next day, the Moose held their Fan Appreciation Day and handed out their 2018-19 Team Awards. Unfortunately, for the first time in a long time, they could not appreciate the more than 8,000 fans that packed Bell MTS Place with a win. The Heat lit up Berdin — looking tired after eight straight starts — for four goals in the second period en-route to a 6-2 romp.
The loss — only their third in regulation at Bell MTS place in their last 24 — prevented the Moose from setting a franchise record in home wins. They did, however, remain in playoff position, tied with the Iowa Wild with 81 points apiece but possessing more ROW.
“I’m really proud of the guys for what we’ve done over the past couple months,” captain Peter Stoykewich said after the game. “We’re still in a position to determine our own fate here. Obviously not what we wanted in the second period. We came unhinged there. You see how close the league is, how good other teams are, and tip your hat to them they put their pedal to the metal there and brought it to us.”
Laying It All on the Line
By the season’s final weekend, the Moose once again found themselves on the outside looking in on the playoff picture by a single point. They were acutely aware of their situation and the protracted path to the postseason: three games, three days, one spot available.
The three-games-in-three-day stretch got off to a good start in Grand Rapids — the Moose turned in a dominant performance with a 4-1 win over the Griffins. Jansen Harkins picked a great time to score his first two goals in more than a month — both stupefying snipes — and Eric Comrie made his first start since being reassigned to the Moose earlier in the week and stopped 28 shots.
Comrie’s bid for his third shutout of the season was broken with 45 seconds left by Martin Frk, but the win was far more important than any individual accomplishment. Despite the win, though, the Moose remained in fifth, one point behind the Admirals.
Coming up Just Short
The next day, the Moose faced the Chicago Wolves for the first of two to wrap up the regular season. They had an opportunity to clinch a berth with a win and an Iowa Wild regulation loss, but similarly, the Wild had a chance to clinch with a win over the Rockford IceHogs and a Moose loss.
Unfortunately for the Moose, nothing went according to plan. The Moose fell 4-2, a third-period comeback falling short. Meanwhile in Iowa, the Wild triumphed 3-0 and jumped to 87 points. The Griffins lost to the Admirals, and those teams ended the night with 87 and 86 points, respectively.
Because the Moose lost in regulation, they remained at 83 points and were eliminated from postseason contention, their improbable push falling just a little bit short.
Playing for Pride
The Moose closed out the regular season with their 76th and final game the next day. Despite having nothing left to play for other than pride, they turned in a dominant performance (a day late, some would say!) in a 6-2 win over the Wolves.
The game saw 2017 Jets’ third-round pick Jonathan Kovacevic and Winnipegger Kamerin Nault make their AHL debuts, and both picked up a goal and an assist. Logan Shaw, with a goal and an assist of his own, also reached and surpassed the 50-point plateau for the first time in his career.
The victory was their 39th of the season and pushed their final record to 39-30-5-2.
Last season’s AHL top rookie was outstanding down the stretch and did more than his part for the playoff push. He had four goals and two assists in their seven games and had a seven game points streak between March 30 and April 13.
Griffith finished the season even stronger than Appleton, posting two goals and six assists through April. Held off the scoresheet only once in the seven games, he finished the season with a team-leading 57 points and set a couple of personal milestones (see below.)
Shaw notched four more goals in April and pushed his final goal total to a team-leading 29. He finished the season with 51 points, the most in his AHL career by 26.
Records and Milestones
- Logan Shaw recorded his 100th-career AHL point on April 3 against the Condors.
- Cam Maclise played his 100th-career AHL game on April 3 against the Condors.
- Seth Griffith notched his 200th-career AHL assist on Logan Stanley’s third-period April 12 goal in Grand Rapids.
- Jonathan Kovacevic recorded the first goal and first assist of his AHL career on April 14 in Chicago.
- Kamerin Nault recorded the first career AHL goal on April 14 in Chicago.
- Cole Maier scored his first career AHL goal on April 14 in Chicago.
- Seth Griffith recorded his 300th-career AHL point on April 14 in Chicago.
Summing it Up
Well-spoken captain Stoykewich eloquently summed up the mixed feelings of falling just short in his end of season interview. As his teammates shook hands and packed up their bags, it was obvious he disappointed with his club’s failure to qualify, but also quite proud of their remarkable turnaround and how they battled to the bitter end when it seemed they were out of it halfway through the season.
“We really found ourselves behind the eight-ball at Christmas, but I’m really proud of the guys and what we were able to accomplish in the second half, but at the end of the day, we’re doing this interview today and not in two months…” the local defenseman said. “It hurts that we were that close.”
“The fact that we put ourselves in a tough spot there at the start of the year obviously came back to bite us,” the first-year captain who tallied 16 points in 60 games continued. “You could see we competed with the best of them out there. Every team in our division, we beat. I think every team out of our division we beat as well… give a lot of credit to all the guys in the room. It really was a team effort.”
“The only feeling I have right now is I feel empty,” head coach Pascal Vincent said candidly. “We feel that we’ve been in the playoff mode since the Christmas break… realizing that it’s not going to happen, it’s going to take some time to deal with it, because it’s certainly a disappointment. I’m disappointed for the players.”
“The one thing they did extremely well is they never gave up. They always believed that we could do it,” the second-year bench boss continued later. “We were in games no matter what, and we have to acknowledge what those guys have done because it’s quite amazing.
Many Moose Made Big Strides
While missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons is disappointing, there are many positives to glean from the season as a whole. The Moose registered a post-Christmas record of 28-14-3-2, their record was the best of the 15 teams that missed the playoffs, and they tied their franchise record for home wins with 25.
The 2018-19 campaign also saw a number of Jets’ prospects evolve and better their game.
Tucker Poolman was an outstanding blue line stalwart, putting up 25 points and playing a key role in all situations. Unfortunately, a few different injuries limited him to just 43 games. However, with Tyler Myers and Nathan Beaulieu likely on their way out and rumours swirling that Jacob Trouba may have played his last game as a Jet, Poolman should get a long and well-deserved look on the Jets’ back end come September.
Appleton, too, should get plenty of consideration for full-time NHL work come the fall. The second-year pro showed he has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, putting up 32 points in 40 games for the Moose in addition to the 10 he put up in 37 games with the Jets from November through February.
Fellow second-year pros Michael Spacek and Harkins both established career-highs in points with 41 and 31, respectively, as their offensive awareness and confidence burgeoned.
Skyler McKenzie and CJ Suess, who both missed significant time due to injuries, showed promise as well. They should play bigger roles next season as long as they stay healthy.
2017 first-round pick Kristian Vesalainen also got his first taste of North American hockey. Although he was inconsistent and only put up five points in his final 14 games, he recorded 13 in 22 overall and his flair for the offensive was obvious with goals such as this one.
Vesalainen won’t have the option to return to Finland next season, and more seasoning next season in the AHL will do more for the young gun’s development than playing on big European ice ever would.
Lastly, Mikhail Berdin quickly became of the organization’s rising stars and an instant fan favourite, posting a 12-8-3 record with a 2.34 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He was instrumental in keeping the Moose in the hunt even when Comrie was up with the Jets. With Comrie’s future with the Jets’ organization very much a question mark, it’s quite likely Berdin will play an even more prominent role on the Moose next year.
To sum it up, the Moose provided many exciting moments for their fans — many of which this author enjoyed live — and fans and players alike should be proud of how they overcame injuries and call ups to play meaningful hockey into April. Everyone should be extremely excited for the future as well, because it looks bright for both the Moose and the Jets.