Of all their admirable qualities in this record-setting season, patience turned out to be the Manitoba Moose’s best tonight at the MTS Centre.
In a game that went 1-1 well into the third period, the Moose had the momentum but not the winning margin until their persistence paid off for the go-ahead goal in a 3-1 victory over the Houston Aeros, bouncing the Aeros from the AHL playoffs.
Manitoba, after dropping two overtime games in Houston last week to see their 3-0 series lead cut to 3-2, finally finished off the Western Conference final in six games.
It wasn’t before many tense moments before 9,276 energetic fans Monday night.
Now, the Moose will head to the Calder Cup final, the first Winnipeg-based pro team to play for a championship in 30 years.
Game 1 of the final is here Saturday night against Hershey, which disposed of Providence on Monday.
Once Michael Grabner’s one-timed point shot found its way past Aeros goalie Matt Climie at 9:46 of the third Monday night, the jig was up for Houston.
The Aeros had dodged four elimination bullets in these playoffs, but no more.
They had been outshot 32-16 to that point in the game and Mark Fistric’s point shot less than three minutes later went off a Houston defender and into the open side of the goal for some insurance.
Once the Moose got the lead, the desperate Aeros had to change their game from diligently defending to trying to find an equalizer. That’s where Fistric’s goal came, after a Moose rush led by rookie Cody Hodgson where the usual abundance of Aeros defenders just weren’t present.
The victory for the Moose marked the first time in the series the team that scored the first goal didn’t win.
And just for a repeat, the Moose, in their first-round triumph over Toronto, also closed out the series with a Game 6 victory on home ice.
Manitoba moved to 3-2 in these playoffs in close-out games, earning a standing ovation from the home crowd in the final minute on Monday night.
The opening period carried some disappointment for the Moose and those fans, as the Aeros struck first for the third straight game.
While captain Mike Keane was off for an interference penalty, Corey Locke was left open at the far post and when he got the puck, he made no mistake in stuffing it.
Moose goalie Cory Schneider was playing the shot and had no chance to stop Locke, who was to his left.
But as has been the case many times in these playoffs, the Moose had a response.
They resumed their forecheck and when Jason Jaffray forced a turnover and fed it to linemate Matt Pope, Pope drew the puck back and wired a shot high over the glove of Aeros goalie Matt Climie from about 20 feet.
The ringing sound of the back post brought the crowd out of their chairs and Manitoba seemed to have momentum for the rest of the period, gaining a power play and then a five-on-three in the ensuing minutes.
The five-on-three was created when the Aeros, who were constantly delaying line changes here in the first two games, tried to make a late switch on a faceoff in their own zone. This one was so late that the puck had already been dropped and an easy too-many-men call was the result.
The Moose, though, failed to find the right, sharp pass during the advantage and failed to score.
Through two and another pair of misses, the Manitoba power play, which was two-for-two in Game 5, had gone zero for five, but when Aeros captain Clayton Stoner was whistled for high-sticking at 8:10 of the third, that was the opening the Moose finally converted.