In the end, the Manitoba Moose simply ran out of chances. And time. And a playoff run that began with visions of a potential Calder Cup didnt last beyond the first round.
A 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Admirals in Sundays deciding Game 5 at Canada Life Centre was a bitter pill to swallow.
I feel like we had such a good thing going. A really good group, good players. These last two games I felt like we found our real game and played a game that would potentially be able to win a championship. And then just threw it all away today, a sombre David Gustafsson said in the post-game press conference.
Indeed, the Moose dug themselves a huge hole in the best-of-five, dropping both games in Milwaukee (3-2, 2-1) despite soundly outplaying the opponent. That set up needing to win three straight do-or-die games on home ice. They nearly did it, rallying from a 2-0 first-period deficit in Game 3 to win 5-2, then routing Milwaukee 7-3 in Game 4.
But the third time wasnt the charm, as Manitoba spent the first 20 minutes of this one chasing Milwaukee all over the ice, getting outshot 13-4 and outscored 1-0 in front of 5,567 fans who didnt have much to cheer for.
That shouldnt happen. We should be way more professional than playing a first period like that in an elimination game. Weve done it two times in a row facing elimination and playing great games. For some reason today we didnt. Its disappointing, said Gustafsson, who was held to just one assist through the five games.
This was the first winner-take-all pro hockey game in Winnipeg since May 1, 2007, when the Moose downed the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 7 of their first-round series.
Its hard to explain the first me. To me it looked liked we were slow to pucks all over the ice. They were winning races on us. They were the ones that were on the forecheck against us. We just looked like we were slow to pucks. I dont have an answer for it, coach Mark Morrison said of his teams tepid start.
The deficit became 2-0 just 90 seconds into the middle frame as the Admirals capitalized on the power play. And there was no more Moose magic to be found.
Just a huge disappointment. We were such a tight group, we believed we could go so much further than that, said captain Jimmy Oligny.
We were used to the past two games where (Milwaukee) didnt come to hard and all of a sudden their back is against the wall as well. They were coming twice as hard. I guess we just were just not used to it. We were used to the past two games. And it showed in the first. I think we came back strong in the second and third, we had a few chances. (Connor) Ingram is a good goalie as well. Its going to be hard to score some goals against them. We definitely didnt come out like we wanted to but I think we steered back into the right direction after that.
To their credit, Manitoba didnt go quietly. They outshot Milwaukee 24-8 over the final 40 minutes, but only Morgan Barron could beat Ingram. The goal, at 4:13 of the second period, would be all the offence they could muster after putting up a dozen goals over the previous two games.
Ingrams biggest save came in the third period as he just got a glove on a terrific tip by Austin Poganski that was headed for the top corner.
I thought (Milwaukee) played strong periods at different times throughout the series. But they were at a different level I think in the first period tonight than theyve been and maybe caught us off guard a little bit, said Morrison. At the end of the day, we still werent as good or as sharp as weve been.
No question Milwaukee deserves plenty of credit. With their backs against the wall for the first time all series, their urgency was evident. And Ingram had their backs, making 27 saves to avoid his second sad handshake line of the week. Ingram was called up by parent Nashville to start Games 2, 3 and 4 against Colorado. The Avalanche swept the Predators out of the NHL playoffs last Monday. Ingram started Game 4 for Milwaukee and was beat seven times on 44 shots, but really locked it down when it mattered most.
We were up against it three in a row. Really when you look back on it the first two were where we needed to take one out of Milwaukee. I thought we deserved to take one out of there, but at the end of the day we didnt, said Morrison.
Winning at the AHL level is secondary to development, although organizations love when the two can go hand-in-hand. In that sense, theres still plenty of things to like about what happened down on the farm and how it bodes for the future of the Jets.
Barron, 23, was the big story, scoring in four straight games and showing he can be a dominant player at this level. His late-season cameo with the Jets, combined with his terrific work with the Moose, shows Winnipeg got quite the prospect in exchange for Andrew Copp at the trade deadline.
The blue-line is also a bright spot. Declan Chisholm (series-leading seven points in five games) and Ville Heinola (five points) led the way, while Dylan Samberg, Johnathan Kovacevic and Leon Gawanke are bursting with potential as well.
You also cant help but wonder what might have been if the Moose had the services of three injured players forwards Cole Perfetti, Kristian Vesalainen and Kristian Reichel. Perfetti and Reichel didnt play at all in the series, while Vesalainen was hurt in Game 2.
Im very proud of the effort the guys put in this year. It wasnt only in the playoffs, we battled all year, Oligny said of the Moose, who finished second in the Central Division and eighth-overall in the AHL with a 41-24-7 record.
The new guys that are going to come in next year, they are going to know that once they put on that jersey, they got to follow that group, they got to work. It wasnt one single guy that was relying on only skills. Everyone was working, from the first line to the fourth and all three (defensive) pairings. Im really proud of everybody, how we battled all year.