Despite what’s been a memorable season for the Manitoba Moose so far, much of what unfolded at Bell MTS Place Monday night amounted to a game they’d soon want to forget.
For the first 57 minutes the Moose were outworked, outplayed and outscored as they looked destined to leave the night empty-handed. Then came the final minutes of the third period.
Trailing 2-0 late and with Michael Hutchinson pulled from the net for an extra attacker, Manitoba finally found their scoring touch, bursting for two goals in a span of just 36 seconds. The momentary flash of brilliance from the home side was enough to force overtime and ensure at least a point in the standings.
But with a chance to complete the comeback, the Moose fell just short, losing 3-2 in the extra period on a shot that beat Hutchinson high following a bad bounce.
"Let’s not kid ourselves. It wasn’t a good performance at all," said Moose captain Patrice Cormier. "Great for us to come back and get a point but keep doing that… it’s going to catch up to us."
The deciding goal came with one minute and 49 seconds remaining in overtime, after the Moose tied the game with goals from defenceman Cameron Schilling and forward Nic Petan. Griffins defenceman Filip Hronek let go a shot that redirected off the stick of Schilling on its way to the net, sending the puck high and past the shoulder of Hutchinson into the top right corner.
"Just went off my stick and beat Hutch," Schilling said.
"There’s nothing he can do about it and not a ton I could do about it either. Just bad luck but maybe that’s karma for not playing the best of games."
Indeed, nothing seemed to go right for the Moose on this night, even if they did manage a late push. It was a rare performance in a season in which the Moose have led the American Hockey League standings for much of the season and have a healthy lead atop the Central Division.
With the loss, Manitoba dropped to 25-6-3-2. They remain in top spot in the AHL, as all other teams were idle, and are 12 points up on the Chicago Wolves for first in the Central.
Still, Moose head coach Pascal Vincent wasn’t about to let his team off the hook just because of what they’ve done in the past.
"We’re in a position to feel good about ourselves but we’re not in the playoffs yet," said Vincent. "We need to stick to our plan and stick to the process and make sure there’s no entitlement."
As for the Griffins, they find themselves on a bit of a roll after starting the season slow, following a Calder Cup championship run last spring. With the win over the Moose, Grand Rapids has now earned points in eight of its last nine games, including seven wins. They still have some room to make up, with their record of 17-16-1-4 still only good for sixth place in the Central.
On Monday, Grand Rapids came out of the gate with speed, pushing the play right from the opening faceoff. It wouldn’t take long for them to get rewarded for their work, taking a 1-0 lead just 1:59 into the game. Matthew Ford scored his 15th of the season after patrolling the front of the net, slipping home a rebound past Hutchinson.
The visitors would double their lead later in the period when Eric Tangradi, a former member of the Winnipeg Jets, intercepted a Schilling pass at his own blue line before walking in alone to beat Hutchinson with a move to the backhand.
The goal was Tangradi’s 11th of the season, putting the Griffins up 2-0 with five minutes remaining in the opening period.
Neither team would be especially good in the second period as both teams went scoreless in the frame. The best chance for Manitoba would come with seconds left in the period, when Darren Kramer fed a pass to Jimmy Lodge on the doorstep, only for Griffins goalie Tom McCollum to get a read on the shot at the last second.
McCollum, a first-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings who has spent much of his professional career in the AHL, made 33 saves in the win. Hutchinson countered with 30 saves in the loss, his record falling to 14-2-4.
Vincent wasn’t looking for excuses for why his team couldn’t seem to find their legs for most of the game. It didn’t matter that the Moose were without two of their forwards in J.C. Lipon and Francis Beauvillier due to injury and another in Brendan Lemieux, who was called by the Winnipeg Jets, and therefore forced to play with 11 forwards. What he said does count is that his team can take the loss as a lesson that if you want to stay at the top you need to learn from your bad games – not just cherish the good ones.
"Right now we’re getting a little bit away of who we are," he said.
"Right now we’re just a little bit off and we need to get back on track."
The Moose will get that chance when they face off against the Griffins Wednesday in what is the second game of a six-game homestand.
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.