Rally around Moose, Ice

Plenty of playoff hockey on tap as AHL, WHL clubs prepare for post-season

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Take a well-deserved bow, Mark Morrison. You too, James Patrick. Because the play of your respective teams, and the excitement of what might still be to come, is just what this hockey-crazed community needs right now.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/04/2022 (220 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Take a well-deserved bow, Mark Morrison. You too, James Patrick. Because the play of your respective teams, and the excitement of what might still be to come, is just what this hockey-crazed community needs right now.

The big dogs in town, the Winnipeg Jets, are going nowhere but the golf course. Lots of bark, but very little bite. They have five games left — the final four at Canada Life Centre which might have the atmosphere of the Millennium Library given the current sad state of affairs — before calling it a season and going their separate ways to lick their wounds.

There will be no Whiteout this spring, unless Mother Nature decides to play yet another cruel trick on us.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Trent Bourque (from left), Haralds Egle, Jeff Malott, Dean Stewart and Greg Meireles of the Manitoba Moose celebrate Egle’s goal against the Abbotsford Canucks in January. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

That hardly means all hope is lost in River City. Far from it, in fact. The Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Ice are making plenty of noise in their respective leagues, and a lengthy run over the next couple months could certainly be in the cards for one, or both, outfits.

They are definitely not in the “just happy to be here” club.

Let’s start with the mighty Moose, the farm team of the Jets and very much the little engine that could this season. Despite no shortage of injuries, COVID-19 infections and a flood of big-league callups — seven different players have already made their NHL debuts this year — coach Morrison has his troops looking like a formidable force. They are 38-22-7 with five regular-season games remaining, which has them comfortably second in their own division, and seventh-overall in the 32-team American Hockey League.

I’m not sure there’s a better way to illustrate what’s happening with the team than this eye-popping stat. Jeff Malott, an undrafted forward who turned an AHL deal into a two-way contract with the Jets at the beginning of the year, is leading the Moose in scoring with 38 points (23 goals, 15 assists) in 58 games. You have to go all the way down to 98th in the league scoring race to find his name.

Manitoba’s key to success is the textbook definition of doing it by committee. The team actually has nine other players between 27 and 37 points, including a mix of top prospects such as David Gustafsson, Johnathan Kovacevic, Declan Chisholm and Leon Gawanke, free-agent depth signings such as Austin Poganski and Mikey Eyssimont, and surprising contributors on AHL-only contracts such as Cole Maier, Nicholas Jones and Greg Meireles.

Throw in Ville Heinola and Kristian Vesalainen, two Jets first-rounders from Finland who have bounced between the two leagues this year, and another pair of high-end skaters just back from long-term injuries in Kristian Reichel and Luke Johnson, and this is a deep and dangerous group. More help is on the way, too, once forward Morgan Barron, defenceman Dylan Samberg and goaltender Mikhail Berdin are all returned from their current call-ups with the Jets.

It’s too bad the organization’s best young prospect, Cole Perfetti, got hurt earlier this year with the Jets and then suffered a second injury while rehabilitating the first one. He’s now just resumed skating with Winnipeg, but he won’t be eligible for the Calder Cup playoffs because he couldn’t be assigned to the clear-day roster by last month’s deadline.

Jeff Malott (left) leads the Manitoba Moose in scoring this season. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

At this point, Manitoba should have home-ice advantage in a first-round series against either Milwaukee or Rockford that will begin in the first week of May. The Moose will be the favourites to advance. And the downtown rink should come alive for this hard-working group that could probably teach the struggling parent club a few tricks of the trade given the drastically different seasons they’re having. For all those Jets fans in mourning, seeing the success down on the farm should at least provide hope that better days are likely ahead.

Speaking of rockin’ barns, I’m looking forward to my first experience of the season at the “Ice Cave” this Friday night when the top team in the Western Hockey League opens its first-round series against the Prince Albert Raiders. At 53-10-5, coach Patrick’s scorching-hot Ice had a regular season for the ages and are currently the No.2 ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League, trailing only the Hamilton Bulldogs.

That makes them the favourites to represent the ‘Dub’ in the Memorial Cup national championship — to be held in late June in Saint John, N.B., — although there are miles to go before they can sleep. But the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy winner as WHL regular-season champion is an elite outfit, with four players posting at least 70 points this year.

That includes two star centres who are expected to go in the first round of this summer’s NHL draft in Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie (currently ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, among North American skaters). Defenceman Carson Lambos was drafted 26th-overall by Minnesota last year, while the squad’s second-leading scorer, winger Connor McClennon, was selected in the sixth round by Philadelphia. There is no shortage of star power on display.

This is the third year the Ice have played in Winnipeg — and the first time they’ll compete in the post-season. The organization is using the #RallyTheStorm slogan and hope to turn Wayne Fleming Arena into a sea of blue. They may not play in a very big venue, but expect it be a lot of fun for local puck lovers.

Whether it’s teenagers chasing their NHL dreams, already drafted prospects now trying to move up the ranks or journeymen taking advantage of the latest opportunity, the Ice and the Moose should provide plenty of bang for the buck while filling the void of a disappointing Jets season. Even the respective bench bosses in Morrison and Patrick might not be long for their current leagues, turning these impressive performances into bigger opportunities.

The future really is now.

Matt Savoie of the Winnipeg Ice is expected to go in the first round of the upcoming NHL draft. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Housing an NHL team, an AHL team and a major junior team, Winnipeg is in select company, along with Chicago and the Greater Toronto Area. And while there’s absolutely no hope this year of a Stanley Cup around these parts, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to catch a serious case of playoff fever this spring.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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