The Manitoba Moose are doing it with defence in 2021-22.
By that we mean to say the club's blue-liners are not only performing ably in their own end but also they've also upped their game on the offensive attack.
At the 18-game mark, Moose blue-liners have already scored 16 goals to match their total for entire the pandemic-abbreviated 36-game regular season in 2020-21. That works out to 26.6 per cent of the team's 60 goals, compared to 14.6 per cent a year ago.
Most notably, veterans Ville Heinola and Leon Gawanke are third and eighth, respectively, in scoring among active AHL defencemen.
Did Moose assistant coach Eric Dubois have an inkling this was coming?
"We talked about it right away," said Dubois following practice at the Bell MTS Iceplex Tuesday morning. "We really said most of our offence will come from the back end. Obviously (centres Cole) Perfetti and (David Gustafsson) were two big parts up front, but as far as the rest of the forwards I think they're their main identities (are as) hard-working players."
With Dylan Samberg returning from injury to form a shutdown pairing with Johnathan Kovacevic, Manitoba is off to a sizzing 11-6-1-0 start, good for 23 points. The club sits only one point back of the first-place Chicago Wolves in the Central Division.
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Gawanke, paired most recently with second-year man Declan Chisolm, has 12 points and is on pace to easily eclipse his AHL career best of 26 points set as a rookie in 2019-20.
"I wanted to… produce some points and obviously join the rush if I can but I also have to work on my defensive game, which I've been told for plenty of years now, 'Always look on the defensive side of the game whether it's on the ice or in the gym (and) getting stronger so you're better at boxing out and stronger in the battles,' " said Gawanke.
Dubois believes the offensively minded Gawanke and Chisolm looked like a natural partnership on a recent six-game road trip in which the Moose collected seven of a possible 12 points.
"They were outstanding — I felt like that pair on the road trip was the most consistent pair that we had over there," said Dubois. "I mean, (it's) good chemistry, they like each other. I think it started from there."
There has also been a steady improvement in Heinola, who is in his first full pro season in North America after being chosen in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets.
Dubois said the 20-year-old Finn has blossomed while partnered with 28-year-old veteran Jimmy Ogilny.
"At one point, I put Jimmy with Ville and what Jimmy does for Ville is… if the other team is trying to take advantage of Ville, well, Jimmy's there to calm things down," said Dubois. "And the other thing that Jimmy does really well for Ville is he talks a lot. I always tell the D the more we talk on the ice the easier to game gets."
Heinola believes his point production is a natural extension of a sound all-round game.
"When you play well those points are gonna come so this has been the main focus," said Heinola, who had four goals and 11 points in 19 games with the Moose last season. "But I feel like there's been so many good plays to score on I would have had even a couple more."
Heinola wants to add to that total when Manitoba heads out for a three-game road trip, beginning Saturday in Belleville, Ont.,
"Of course I want more — I'm still so hungry," he said. "I want to learn more. I'm never never gonna be happy with my game."
OLYMPIC DREAMS: Leon Gawanke has more than the AHL season to look forward to this winter. After playing admirably for Germany at the 2021 world championship — scoring twice in 10 games — the Berliner is considered a top candidate to play for his country at the Beijing Olympics.
"I haven't really been in contact with anyone there yet," said Gawanke, when asked about his Olympic ambitions. "I think it's too early now, but it's obviously a huge goal that I want to achieve this year. It would be a childhood dream come true to go to the Olympics."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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