Manitoba Moose Winning Thanks to Balanced Offence & Stingy Defence

The Manitoba Moose are excelling in the AHL’s Central Division, and proving to be a tough team to beat. They are 15-7-1-0and 8-2-0 in their past 10 after sweeping a weekend homestand against the Grand Rapids Griffins.

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After a big-third period comeback on Friday night to win 4-2 and a 3-2 victory Saturday on Teddy Bear Toss night, they sit in second place behind only the Chicago Wolves.

Moose Are a Four-Line Scoring Threat

One key to the Moose’s success this season has been their balanced attack. This makes them a difficult team for opponents to handle when they are all pulling in the same direction. As of this writing, they had just one player in the AHL’s top 50 in points (David Gustafsson at number 49), but have a whopping 11 players with 10 points or more.

As far as forwards go, top-line centre Gustafsson leads the way with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists), while Austin Poganski — who recently had a seven-game point streak snapped — has 15 (four goals, eleven assists.)

“I can’t say enough about him,” head coach Mark Morrison said of Gustafsson recently. “You put him in all situations, he’s the backbone and strength of our team there. He’s in the circle, he battles down low, then he’s on the forecheck, then he’s net front. He’s a horse and he continues to go.”

The “Gus Bus” is the most deserving of a call-up to the Jets; the parent club is down to 11 healthy forwards as Blake Wheeler is set to miss significant time after suffering a lower body injury against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday. However, there was no call-up on Monday due to a positive COVID-19 test within the Moose.

Cole Perfetti, meanwhile, has been away from the Moose to participate in Canada’s 2022 World Juniors selection camp and surprise, surprise, he made the team. He put up 15 points prior to his temporary departure (six goals, nine assists.) The first-round phenom has looked dangerous at both even strength and on the power play.

Cole Perfetti Manitoba Moose
The Moose will be without the services of Cole Perfetti until January as he plays in the world juniors. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Centre Cole Maier has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) and is on a heater, as he’ll enter the Moose’s next game Thursday coming off back-to-back multi-point efforts and with six points in his last six games.

Other forwards with 10-plus points are Mikey Eyssimont (six goals, six assists), Kristian Reichel (five goals, seven assists), Jeff Malott (six goals, five assists) and Greg Meireles (two goals, eight assists.)

“There’s depth down the lineup there, I think that everyone brings something so they’re all into it,” Morrison said. “It’s a good feeling right now, they get along really well, they cheer reach other on… it’s a good team feeling right now.”

The Moose offence cycles the puck in the offensive zone extremely effectively and often drastically outshoots their opponents, with an average 34.39 shots per game.

Defence Limiting Opportunities, Contributing Offence

The d-core, which on some nights features exclusively Jets’ prospects, has been sturdy and has made life pretty easy for goaltenders Mikhail Berdin and Arvid Holm, giving up just 21.21 shots per game.

They are especially deft at preventing high-quality chances off the rush and in addition, have a number of slick skaters —most notably Ville Heinola, Leon Gawanke, and Jonathan Kovacevic — with good hands who make smart reads and move the puck efficiently out of their own end.

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They are not only stout defensively, they are also adept at keeping the cycle going in the offensive zone. Like their parent club, a lot of their offence originates from the blue line.

Regarding Heinola, it’s obvious the 2019 20th-overall pick is too good for the AHL, as he’s recorded two goals and 12 assists for 14 points and a plus-five rating in 18 games. Morrison recently said Heinola’s biggest asset is his ability to jump up and set up the play, and his intelligence is remarkable to behold in person.

Ville Heinola Manitoba Moose
Ville Heinola is lighting it up. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Heinola was called up to join the Jets on their two-game west coach road swing last week as Neal Pionk was both suspended for kneeing and in concussion protocol. Unfortunately, Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice has a glaring veteran bias and parked the promising youngster in the press box, preventing his season debut.

Gawanke, meanwhile, leads Moose defensemen with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) and the team with a plus-11 rating. He’s taken a huge step forward and looks to be extra motivated to represent Germany at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

Leon Gawanke Manitoba Moose
Leon Gawanke leads Moose defenders in points and the team in plus/minus. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Fifth round 2018 selection Declan Chisholm — in his sophomore season — has really turned it on and now has 13 points (five goals, eight assists) and nine points in his past 10. Big-bodied Jonathan Kovacevic is also in double digits in points with 10 (four goals and six assists) and a plus-seven rating.

Moose Having Special Teams Success, Enjoying Home Cooking

The Moose’s penalty kill has been the antithesis of the Jets’ often shambolic, totally passive regime.

Related: Jets Pathetic and Passive Penalty Kill Needs Massive Revamp

A fairly disciplined squad, the Moose are the 19th-least penalized team in the AHL and have killed off 71 out of 80 penalties for an eye-popping 88.8 per cent efficiency. Large contributing factors to the success of league’s third-best PK regime are their aggressive pursuit of the puck carrier and ability to pounce on loose pucks quickly.

“It brings us momentum,” Morrison said of the penalty kill. “We use a lot of bodies on it and they take pride in it, they’re all standing on the bench and yelling and screaming at the blocked shots. It’s a big part of our team right now.”

A sign special teams are operating well is when the penalty-kill percentage, combined with the power play percentage, equals 100 or more. The Moose power play has also done its part to ensure the number is nearly 110. With the extra man, the team has operated at a 20.2 per cent efficiency (18 goals on 89 opportunities), good for 10th in the league.

Jeff Malott Manitoba Moose
Jeff Malott is tied for the team league with three power play goals. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

While the Moose have been tough to beat anywhere, they’ve been especially so in the friendly confines of Canada Life Centre. They are 9-2-0-0 on home ice and haven’t lost there since Nov. 27. It’s an extension of their success last season while playing out of the Bell MTS Iceplex, as they finished 7-0-0-1 in their final eight home games of 2020-21.

Moose Name Leadership Group

On Dec. 2, the Moose announced defenseman Jimmy Oligny as the 11th captain in franchise history, and the first captain since Peter Stoykewych in the 2019-20 season. Gustafsson and Maier were named alternate captains.

Oligny, 28 years old, is a calming veteran presence of the back end who has appeared in 400 career AHL games — his 400th was his first game as Moose captain on Dec. 4. He joined the Moose during the 2018-19 season and has suited up for 125 games with the organization and recorded 34 points (eight goals, 26 assists.)

Oligny will have to wait until at least Dec. 30 to play his first home game with the ‘C’ on his chest as he missed both games against the Griffins with a minor injury.

Moose Hit the Road For Five, Return for Two

The Moose will hit the road for five straight games, beginning with a Thursday matchup against the Wolves. They’ll then play four games in five days, two against the Iowa Wild (Dec. 18 and 19) and two against Texas Stars (Dec. 21 and 22.)

After a well-deserved holiday break, the Moose will return home for their first-ever tangles with the Abbotsford Canucks, on Dec. 30 and on Dec. 31 for the long-standing and always electric New Year’s Eve matinee matchup.