It has only been a small five-game sample, but the 2020-21 version of the Manitoba Moose appears potent and ready to attack. Hold for some early-season jitters, the team has responded to back-to-back losses with three-straight victories and now sees itself closer to the top than the bottom of the five-team Canadian Division.
Using a points percentage breakdown to supersede total points or regulation/overtime wins in a season that will see AHL teams play anywhere from 24-44 games or less (depending on the ever-changing world of COVID-19), every game is valuable.
Although starting with a tough wake-up call in the form of back-to-back losses to the Toronto Marlies at home, the team turned itself around rather quickly, with a number of common themes beginning to present themselves along the way.
For one, the Moose have to play a game in which the team has not held a lead to some degree. Although falling behind in the later stages of the season opener, Manitoba did find itself ahead 2-1 after 20 minutes – much like that of its second game, also up 2-1 through the first period. Horrifically, the Marlies combined to score seven goals to Manitoba’s zero in the four periods that followed.
The second and third games of the four-game mini set with the Marlies were far more competitive, with the home team operating on more a well-balanced attack. Actually finding the twine twice in the second periods and three times in the two third periods gave the Moose more goals in the later stages of the four games than in the opening 20 minutes.
After starting rather shaky, Manitoba’s star netminder Mikhail Berdin has seemingly found his 2019-20 form in the games following the 0-2-0 start. Giving up nine goals on the first 69 shots he faced, the Winnipeg Jets’ sixth round pick in 2016 turned his game around, going 3-0-0 with a .960 save percentage, stopping 120 of 125 pucks fired his way, including 43 of 45, 38 of 39 and 39 of 41 in his most recent displays.
“The plan is to play him as much as we can,” Vincent said of starting Berdin for each of the team’s five games thus far. “We’ll speak to him on a daily basis and re-evaluate every single day, what the plan is for the following day. We plan to play our young guys and to make sure that those guys see different situations, that they play games.”
Another consistency has been the line of Nathan Todd, Tyler Graovac and Bobby Lynch. Skating together for all five contests, the group has put up five goals and 13 combined points, while also earning the praises of their bench boss.
“There’s a different mix of skills that can work really well if they play with some confidence and then they create some chemistry over time,” Vincent said of the Todd/Graovac/Lynch line. “And the last two games I thought they were our more creative group and they produced a few goals but they were also reliable defensively.”
Moving to Laval for another four-game set with the Rocket, Manitoba began the mini series with an overtime victory on Monday. After a rather silent start to the 2020-21 AHL campaign, Ville Heinola put himself front and centre on Monday, ripping home the game-winner by way of a four-on-three power play in the extra frame.
Cole Perfetti to Ville Heinola for the overtime winner.
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— Carter Brooks (@CBrooksie84) February 23, 2021
The goal was Heinola’s second of the game and second point of the season. Assisting on the play was Jets’ 2020 first round draft pick Cole Perfetti. The 19-year-old had scored in Manitoba’s first game of the year, but had failed to crack the scoresheet again until that point.
“We’re going to give those young players all kinds of opportunities and we’ll learn from that,” Vincent said of Heinola and Perfetti. “What I see so far is their reads are really good and that’s something that’s hard to teach. You can help hockey players to improve their hockey sense…but the reads are so good for such young players.”
With five of 36 regular season contests now having been completed, the Moose sit at a 3-2-0 record with a .600 points percentage in those games. Now looking at a three-game in four-night stretch, it already feels as though it is must-win hockey for one of the league’s most exciting franchises. The Moose face off against Laval at 6:00 PM central time on both Wednesday and Friday, before playing a 3:00 PM afternoon matchup on Saturday.