Let's play an easy game. Guess which team is the Ontario Reign, and which is the Manitoba Moose?
Winless through the first seven games of their eight-game road trip, Central cellar-dweller Manitoba stared up at daunting odds as they tried to change their luck against Pacific-leading Ontario.
The refs were ever in the Moose's favor at puck drop, as Michael Mersch and Kurtis MacDermid were sent off for early infractions. However, they did squat up a man, and from that point on, well, speaking of easy games...
About halfway into the opening frame, Vincent LoVerde connected with Sean Backman streaking up the neutral zone wing. Backman gained the line, tossing it to a charging Kris Newbury in the right slot for a soft backhander that eluded Eric Comrie. Of course, Newbury was glad to get on the scoresheet so quickly after missing 12 games. But what caught my eye? From Loverde to Backman to Newbury, and between Scott Kosmachuk, Andrew MacWilliam, and Josh Morrissey, Manitoba's hot butter resistance:
However, given a reprieve by seven penalty whistles in the first, the Moose were able to slow the Reign's even strength attack. After 20, the home team only owned a 3-1 ES scoring chances edge.
No such luck for the visitors in the second, as they were pelted by Grade-A chance after chance. About five minutes in, Andrew Crescenzi, from the corner, threw it by Darren Kramer to Jonny Brodzinski, who had beat MacWilliam to the doorstep of the crease. It was another crossbar for Brodzinski, who has more iron than goals (five) this year.
A couple minutes later, an unharried Julian Melchiori cleared it right to Backman. On the ensuing Derek Forbort point shot, Melchiori was slow to account for Mersch, who cashed in the change. Or should we say lucked out? Big Mike admitted later, "I was actually going to pass it to Backs on the backdoor but hit off the guy's shin pad and went in."
Just another couple minutes later, as Mersch occupied Morrissey in the front, Backman scooted past the lumbering Ryan Olsen for a loose puck, staking Ontario to what amounted to a pretty much insurmountable 3-0 lead.
A little more than halfway into the second, the home team had already outshot the Moose 11-3.
Down three, would Manitoba offer any reply? Perhaps a Grade-A chance? A sternly-worded complaint?
Nope. Five minutes into the closing frame, Kyle Clifford rang it off the crossbar after a Crescenzi faceoff victory. LoVerde crashed hard for the long rebound, beating Comrie. Or did he?
Clifford noted that the ref blew the whistle after his shot. "He thought it went in. That's why he blew the whistle."
Presumably desperate, the Moose were still outchanced at evens in the third 4-2. In the pressbox, we noticed their size, which was comparable to the Reign's, but in truth? The Manitoba Moose: Heavy, easy to play against.
There was a telling stretch with about eight minutes to go in the game. Sprung by a rare puck battle win in their defensive zone, Chase De Leo, John Albert, and Nic Petan enjoyed a brief 3-on-2. Admittedly at the end of their shift, however, Manitoba came up snake eyes. Then LoVerde and Adrian Kempe, also at the end of their shift, turned the attack around on Jan Kostalek and Peter Stoykewych, backing off the fresher D pairing for another Ontario opportunity:
In a lot of ways, tonight was repeat of last week's smothering of the Moose. Assistant Coach Chris Hajt agreed, "We talked a lot about advancing pucks. Making sure that we're moving north...kept getting pucks in and behind their D.
"We don't want to allow any team to create transition, especially in the third period with a lead...For the most part, we did a good job of that, both games."
Should-be All-Star Nic Dowd closed the book on a miserable Moose road trip, as he danced through a trio of would-be defenders to find Mersch up the ice for a gimme empty netter.
The defending Calder Cup champs go into the break having taken six of seven; the possible Kelly Cup contenders are on an eight-game skid.