HOUSTON — Just before Monday night’s AHL playoff game started at Toyota Center, public address announcer Steve Vidal ran down the list of scratches for the Manitoba Moose and Houston Aeros.
On his list was Moose winger Michael Grabner.
The Aeros should have been so lucky.
It was just a paperwork error and Grabner, the Vancouver Canucks first-round draft pick of 2006, made no such mistakes with two goals including the winner with just 3:49 to play in Manitoba’s 4-3 victory before 2,634 fans.
Their 10th straight playoff win gives the Moose a solid 3-0 grip on this best-of-seven Western Conference final with Game 4 slated for Wednesday here.
It was the most tense finish of the series after the Aeros rallied on home ice from a 3-1 deficit to start the third period, tying it in the first seven minutes.
When the clock ticked down under four minutes to go in the deadlocked game, Grabner fired a shot off the crossbar past Aeros goalie Nolan Schaefer for his fourth goal in the last two games.
"Give Grabs a lot of credit," said linemate Jason Jaffray, who fed the pass into the middle for his teammate and the game-winner. "I didn’t see him at all but he was screaming from about the red line. I heard him at the last second. I thought it was just a two on two with (Jason) Krog.
"He (Grabner) was flying tonight. He had a breakaway in the first they stopped. He’s tough to stop when he gets some confidence. If we keep him going it’s scary because I know any D-man in the league hates to play against Michael Grabner when he gets going."
Grabner, now with five playoff goals, sounded like he’s brimming with just that confidence.
"The pucks weren’t going in before but I felt good," he said after the Moose went to 5-1 on the road in the playoffs. "Now they’ve gone in and it’s the right time."
He said he put the winner just where he was aiming.
"I knew it could be a three on two so I yelled for the puck," he said. "(Jaffray) made a great pass and I had time to shoot the puck. I just wanted to go short side, surprise him a little. I don’t know if I got it all but it went where I wanted. I was so excited, maybe I didn’t get it all."
Schaefer, who replaced Anton Khudobin as the starter for Game 3, said the winning play was just quirky enough to throw him off.
"There was a pass to the middle and it went off our guy’s skate to change the angle a little and then I think he actually fanned on the shot and it kind of fluttered and it ended up off the crossbar and in," Schaefer said. "No excuses for it. Good player, good shot. I just have to make the save next time."
Schaefer said the Aeros’ third-period rally was in character — not much has fazed this team in the playoffs — but that one too many mistakes was a killer.
"I don’t think we played a bad game," the goalie said. "They didn’t get a lot of shots but the opportunities they did get were Grade A, A-plus chances and they ended up scoring on us. It was more of a mental thing getting us down.
"When it came down to it, we gave up too many opportunities and I didn’t make the big save at the end."
Moose coach Scott Arniel was a little surprised at his team giving up a lead it took to the third period. In these playoffs, the Moose had had a tidy 13-4 goals advantage in third periods.
"I think we got a little ahead of ourselves after that second period," the coach said. "We had probably played two picture-perfect periods until then. But we got ahead of ourselves, started to make some mistakes and we got sitting back and getting rid of the puck, and we took some penalties.
"We settled down (after it was 3-3). You could hear guys on our bench. We went from real good puck possession in the first 40 to getting rid of it as fast as we could, like we didn’t want it. And give them credit, they pressed us real hard.
"In the end it was a huge goal by our top line to throw the nail into the coffin for this one."