The Manitoba Moose are in the middle of their worst slide of the season. They had lost five straight contests before defeating the Grand Rapids Griffins on Friday, April 7 by a score of 3-1.
On their most recent eight-game homestand, they finished with a record of 2-5-1. While they are still nearly a sure thing to make the Calder Cup Playoffs, they are at risk of losing their confidence going into the first round.
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How did this slide happen for a team battling for first place in the Central Division for the majority of the season? A combination of bad luck, injuries, and getting away from their style of play were the main messages the players and coaches sent after the losses.
Injury to Declan Chisholm Halted Momentum
In a 4-3 win over the Chicago Wolves back on March 19, American Hockey League All-Star Declan Chisholm suffered a high-ankle sprain that has kept him out of the lineup ever since. The Moose have gone 2-5-1 in his absence, and have struggled to put together 60-minute efforts.
Chisholm isn’t the only one missing time either, with Alex Limoges missing games up front along with Wyatt Bongiovanni. With both their leading scoring forward (Limoges) and leading scoring defender (Chisholm) out of the lineup, that makes their recent slide more understandable.
The five-game losing streak included two losses to the Laval Rocket, two losses to the Abbotsford Canucks, and a loss to the Griffins. After their fifth loss in a row, forward Dominic Toninato labeled the team’s effort, “Embarrassing. You got a team coming in here playing for nothing, we’re on a four-game skid and we go from playing for first to now playing to stay out of the play-in game.”
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Without Chisholm, the Moose have struggled to transition the puck up the ice and play on the offensive side more than their opponent. One solution that assistant coach Eric Dubois tried late in games was pairing both Ville Heinola and Leon Gawanke together in high-leverage situations. When asked about it, he said the reason behind it was, “To create more offence from one pair. I like to have an offensive pair moving the puck together and they have poise together.”
During the five-game losing streak, the Moose had periods or stretches of play where they would look dominant, but ultimately fail to post a 60-minute effort. Leading 2-1 going into the third period against the Griffins on April 6, the Moose gave up three goals in the first seven minutes and went on to lose 5-2.
The very next game, with the same 2-1 lead heading into the third, they were able to shut the door and come away with a 3-1 victory. Head coach Mark Morrison explained the change in philosophy stating, “Instead of trying to protect the lead we wanted to go out and win the hockey game.”
Moving Past the Losing Streak
Morrison explained to reporters how difficult it is to break a losing streak once you are in one; “Once you get in these ruts where you lose some games in a row, everything is hard. It’s hard to get the puck in the net, you’re playing on the defensive side of the puck all the time, and you’re not taking any risks.”
Now that they have broken the streak, they will need to refine their game in their final four contests – all of which are road games and come against good opponents. Since Chisholm has not been in the lineup, Gawanke has stepped up in a big way. On April 7 against the Griffins, he scored on the first shot of the game, which happened to be his 17th goal of the season.
Seventeen goals by a defenceman in a single season tie the record for most ever by a member of the Moose. With just four games remaining, he has a good chance to break that record.
When asked about it, Morrison stated, “I actually think that’s incredible. The Moose have been around for a long time… and that’s quite a feat, I’m proud of him. He deserves it and I don’t think he’s looking to tie, he’s looking to win it. He likes to score goals and he’s good at it.”
Other big points producers such as Jansen Harkins, Toninato, Jeff Malott, Limoges, and Heinola are going to be the ones to pull the Moose out of this losing skid. Their remaining schedule includes two games against the Texas Stars and one each against the Rockford IceHogs and Chicago Wolves. The Moose still need two points to secure a playoff spot, and it looks all the more likely that they will be facing the Milwaukee Admirals in the playoffs for a second straight year, after losing to them in the first round a year ago.