Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For Moose, playoffs the only sure thing

Their post-season will be an adventure

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A one-and-done playoff scenario with this version of the Manitoba Moose wouldn't be a surprise, but neither would a trip to the AHL'S Western Conference final.

Usually, after 78 games of an 80-game season, getting a handle on a team is possible, but the Manitoba Moose remain a mystery.

The Moose could finish as high as first in the North Division or drop to fourth with just two games remaining on their schedule. Nothing, other than a playoff berth, is for certain with these Moose.

"You would hope we would be able to have success in the playoffs, but it won't be that easy. When you look at it, everybody is going to be in the same boat," said Moose coach Claude Noel. "The difference from first to fourth in our division, whether there's a crossover or not, will be maybe four points. What's that -- win or two wins? The teams we play in the playoffs will have just as much on the table as we do."

Noel looks at his roster and likes much of what he sees, but admits, "there are still question marks."

Like all AHL teams, the Moose have a mix of new pros and veterans with varying degrees of experience. The older players have, for the most part, carried their end of the load with this team, but the prospects have yet to blossom into legit AHL players.

It's unfair to put all the blame at the feet of first-rounder Cody Hodgson, but he's the most obvious disappointment at this stage. Hodgson has, at times, been Manitoba's best player, but the overall body of work lacks consistency. What Hodgson can provide in the post-season will tell a lot of Manitoba's story.

The Moose will very likely get no help from the parent Vancouver Canucks this playoff and may, in fact, suffer at the needs of the big club. If Vancouver gets on a roll and goes deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, they'll lean on the Moose for depth. So often in this relationship, it's been the other way around. Vancouver is the NHL's top club and the safe bet is that they will be playing long after the Moose have disbanded for summer haunts.

The Moose have scored 216 goals while allowing 201 and are middle-of- the-pack in both areas. The power play is little better than dreadful, ranked 26th in a league of 30 teams. Penalty-killing is a strength, ranked second in the AHL with an 86.2 per cent success rate.

Manitoba isn't going to outgun many opponents. They need to check the opponent's hat, coat and car keys to have a chance most nights.

"I think we stack up pretty good, but I don't see us having an easy route," Noel said. "When I look at our team, we don't create a lot of scoring opportunities, there are some things that we don't do well, and when I look at individual players, I have to question how many 'A' games do we have going. So there are some concerns, no question. I don't see us being two steps ahead of anyone else, that's for sure."

The Moose have added grit as the season has developed, but still have a number of players who can be labelled soft.

"I still would like us to be a harder team to play against, but that's something that in the room they're going to have to sort through, because we've been down that road a lot," said Noel.

Soft teams don't go far in the post-season. And as Noel suggests, it's not just us who can't figure what the Moose are; the players themselves have yet to decide. All that can be said to that is, hurry up.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2011 C4

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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