The Winnipeg Jets’ October was up and down, but their American Hockey League affiliate’s first month of 2019-20 was nearly all down.
The Manitoba Moose kicked off their 20th season with a fairly experienced and stable squad — 22 returning players — and at first glance, looked poised to be a competitive team with plenty of talent to go around.
Despite that, they played poorly for most of the month, winning just a single game and losing seven. They’re dead last in the Central Division.
Starting Off with a Split
The Moose began the season in Texas, where they faced the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars on Oct. 4 and 5, respectively. They fell 2-1 to the Rampage, but rebounded the next day to top the stars 5-3.
In the latter game, the Moose lost a 3-1 lead but second-year player Skyler McKenzie scored the game-winner with 2:22 left in the third. Returning veterans Seth Griffith and Logan Shaw both tallied multiple points in the team’s only victory of the season.
Returning Home in a Snowstorm
The Moose then returned to Bell MTS Place for their home opener versus the Toronto Marlies. As an unprecedented fall snowstorm pounded the city and surrounding area with nearly 40 centimeters of heavy, wet snow, the Moose and Marlies also pounded it out in an intense and spirited game.
The Marlies came out on top, 3-2, thanks to an early third-period goal by Adam Gaudet in front of 6,549 hardcore fans who braved the weather for a night at the rink.
The teams met again the following afternoon as Winnipeggers dug out and the province of Manitoba declared a state of emergency as tens of thousands were without power. The Moose didn’t have the same urgency as the crews working outside and were shut out 4-0.
Better Weather, Same Results
Despite players such as veteran defenseman Cameron Schilling promising better and having a full week of practice to resolve their issues, the only thing better about the Moose’s pair of matchups the following weekend against the Iowa Wild was the weather.
On a temperate fall Friday, the Moose cut ruts to the sin bin, giving their opponents a whopping 10 power play opportunities; they paid for it, allowing three goals while down a man in a 6-4 loss.
There were some positives, however: Seth Griffith had three assists and Kristian Vesalainen, who had a dreadful preseason and was held off the scoresheet in the Moose’s first four games, tallied his first two points of the season.
The following day, Wild sniper Sam Anas was instrumental in extending the Moose’s losing streak to four, scoring two goals and adding an assist in a 4-2 victory.
“I think we’re still in the process of finding who we are first,” a frustrated-sounding head coach Pascal Vincent said following the latter loss. “If we want to play a skill game, we’re not going to have much success. We need to play north/south, less east/west, more skating… in order to find out where we stand compared to the other teams in the league, we have to know first who we are.”Pascal Vincent on the team’s lack of identity
When asked to assess the 16 minors the Moose took in back-to-back games, Vincent said, “We need to be in control of our sticks and our actions. Right now, finding the balance between being overly emotional and in control, that might be an area where we can improve. But I don’t wanna take away the passion of our team.”
Hapless Away from Home
The Moose then hit the road for a quick two-gamer to finish the month, with their first stop in Grand Rapids against the Griffins on Oct. 25. However, they still looked like a team bereft of positives or confidence. Again, they fell behind by multiple goals, and despite outshooting the Griffins 37-22, lost 4-1.
The next day, the Moose traveled to Chicago to face a long-time rival in the Wolves. Again, they outshot their opponents but were shut out 4-0 for the second time that month. The loss extended their losing streak to six games and counting.
Moose Lacking in Every Aspect
Goal scoring was a huge problem for the Moose in October, as they lit the lamp just 15 times over eight games. Players expected to carry the offensive mail such as Kristian Vesalainen, Michael Spacek, CJ Suess, Jansen Harkins, and JC Lipon are all off to exceedingly slow starts.
“We haven’t scored that many goals,” Vesalainen, who is in North America for his first full season after opting to play most of last season in Europe, said when asked what was his biggest point of frustration.
“Obviously, that’s been pretty hard for us, he said. “We have to work pretty hard on that… we have to just work harder.”
At the other end, goaltending has been an equally huge problem; the tandem of Mikhail Berdin and Adam Carlson let 30 pucks find twine.
Berdin, especially, has wilted under the pressure. The enigmatic Russian suddenly became the bona-fide number one after longtime Moose goaltender Eric Comrie was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes just a few days before the season began.
With a 3.21 goals-against average and .898 save percentage, Berdin has looked nothing like the goaltender who burst onto the scene last season and posted a terrific 2.34 GAA and .927 SV% in 23 appearances.
Finally, the special teams were poor. The power play was awful, operating at an unthinkably low 3.6 per cent, while the penalty kill was comparatively better, killing off 78.4 per cent of infractions. Those numbers are not nearly good enough, however, to push the combined total (PP percentage plus PK percentage) to the 100 mark, where a competitive team should be – for example, one that scores on 20 per cent of power plays while killing off 80 per cent of their penalties.
Records and Milestones
- Emile Poirier played in his 250th-career AHL game on Oct. 4 against the Rampage.
- Leon Gawanke recorded his first-career AHL point with an assist on Oct. 5 against the Stars.
- Andrei Chibisov scored his first-career AHL goal on Oct. 11 versus the Marlies.
- Joona Luoto picked up his first AHL point with an assist on Oct. 25 against the Griffins.
The Road Ahead
If the Moose want to recover from their worst start in their five seasons since returning from St. John’s, they’ll have to play a lot better in November, lest their playoff aspirations get buried early.
Captain Peter Stoykewich, pointless so far, insists his squad is much better than its record indicates, and that they can begin posting some wins.
“We feel like we’ve played some pretty good hockey for most of the time. It’s just a couple minutes here and there that we take our foot off the gas and in this league, that’ll kill you,” he said recently. “We’ve had a couple of good days and practice here and have every intention of turning this thing around right away.”
Stoykewich and co. have plenty of opportunities to make their record more respectable, as they play 15 games in November, beginning with two at home versus the Griffins on Nov. 2 and 3.
After a three-game road trip through Milwaukee, Rockford, and Chicago from Nov. 6 through Nov. 9, they’ll return to Bell MTS Place for four straight between Nov. 11 and Nov. 17, when they’ll welcome the Texas Stars and Rockford IceHogs for a pair of games each.
Then they’ll head out on a lengthy road trip that will take them to the end of the month. It starts out east for three games against Canadian opponents — one against the Belleville Senators and two against the Toronto Marlies — before returning to the Central time zone for three more against divisional opponents in the Admirals, Griffins, and Wolves.