Moose need to increase intensity on road to AHL playoffs
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It wasn’t that long ago the Manitoba Moose looked to be in the driver’s seat, in the thick of an AHL standings battle, just a point or two removed from first place in the Central Division.
Fast forward a few weeks and the Moose can still technically finish in first, but finding the top of the mountain is no longer as easy a trek. A tough couple weeks — including losing three of their previous four games and winning just three of their last 10 — has the Moose (34-21-9) sitting in third place, four points behind the Texas Stars (35-18-11) and Milwaukee Admirals (38-20-5), with the Admirals holding a game in hand on the competition.
That doesn’t seem like a lot of ground to make up until you realize the Moose have just eight games remaining in the regular season. While they may no longer control their destiny, they do control their mindset and the effort level they want to put forth down the final stretch.
“It becomes what do we want? Do we want first place? Or do we want to be content with third place?” Moose head coach Mark Morrison told the Free Press following Wednesday’s practice. “There are so many ways to look at finishing first. You might have a better opportunity or a better chance of going through another round. I’m not sure anybody wants to play Milwaukee — or as I call them, Nashville, because they’ve got eight guys playing (with the Predators) right now — because they’re going to be a good hockey team. Rockford (IceHogs) is the same way in that they’ve got five guys coming back from Chicago.”
The coach added: “These teams are getting tremendously stronger. So, the best thing for us is to gun for first place.”
While points are certainly the most important thing for the Moose at the moment, it’s not the only goal for Manitoba in these final regular-season games. They also want to find consistency in their play, so they know what to expect game in and game out.
That hasn’t exactly been the case of late. The Moose are coming off back-to-back losses to the Laval Rocket, in which they were outscored 10-4 at home to a team that is currently fighting for its playoff life in the North Division, sitting in fifth place with just two points separating them from seventh.
“We don’t usually give up two straight at home, so, obviously, we’re not super happy about the Laval games,” said Moose forward Jansen Harkins, who has 21 goals and 21 assists in 36 games. “Laval came in here pretty desperate and they just outworked us and outplayed us, and I think we all know that. It’s just getting back on track and just working hard. That’s going to the key and from there, hopefully get some wins.”
Morrison said he’s been preaching to his players the need to treat their remaining games as if they’re already in the playoffs, something he reinforced again during a team meeting ahead of Wednesday’s workout. The intensity across the league has only ramped up over the last couple of weeks and the Moose will need to find that extra gear if they plan to go on a roll before the post-season begins.
Following a 4-3 shootout loss to Rockford on March 22, and with a rematch against the IceHogs two days later, Morrison challenged his club to treat the second tilt as if it were a playoff game. The Moose were able to rise to the occasion, delivering a convincing 6-2 victory, only to fall flat in consecutive losses to Laval.
“We need to understand that every team that comes in here is playing for playoff position, and we should be, too,” Morrison said. “We need to play harder, and we need to play playoff-style hockey now and not wait until playoffs.”
If the Moose are going to have the kind of playoff run they’ve envisioned for themselves, it will require playing to their identity as an aggressive and hard forechecking team. For that to happen, it will take everyone pulling the same direction.
A full team effort is what’s also needed to keep pace with the top teams in the division. Milwaukee has won five straight games and Texas has victories in three of its last four.
“Nobody seems to be really losing any games in our division right now. Everybody’s hot,” said Moose forward Jeff Malott. “It’s going to be hard to catch both those teams but, I mean, we’re right there. It’s just going to take everybody getting on the same page.”
The Moose wrap up the back half of an eight-game homestand with a pair against the Abbotsford Canucks, beginning Thursday, followed by two games against the lowly Grand Rapids Griffins, who are last in the Central. Manitoba then hits the road for the final four regular-season games, playing twice in Texas before stops in Rockford and Chicago.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.