The Manitoba Moose are hoping to play their best hockey at the end of next month.
The American Hockey League's playoffs are just a few weeks away, and Portage's own Dean Stewart has played a big role in the Moose's postseason push. The defenceman is finishing up his first full season with the club and says it's been quite the year.
"It's been really fun for me. Last year around this time of the year, I wasn't really playing much. So, to actually be a part of it is pretty cool, and it's where you want to be at this time of the year," Stewart explains. "I think it makes it pretty exciting to go to the rink every day, whether it's playing or practicing, just knowing that every game from here on out is going to be the most important one of the year."
Stewart played in just 20 games at the AHL level last year but in 2022-23, he has seen the ice in 53 of the team's 64 games played. With just eight games remaining, the Moose have a record of 34-21-9 and are in third place in the Atlantic Division standings.
The 24-year-old says they plan to play these last few weeks out as if it was the playoffs.
"We actually had a meeting the other day about how you can't just turn a switch on and start playing playoff hockey when the time comes. For us, it's about playing with the identity that we've had all year, being a little harder, and taking these last eight games seriously," Stewart continues. "When the time comes, and we are in the playoffs, we'll know how we want to play the game, and it won't be a complete shock to us."
Stewart has one goal and 15 assists this season, putting him fourth on the team in scoring by a defenceman. His spike in ice time and the larger role he's taken on in that time have made Stewart a very happy camper.
"It's been a bit of an interesting year. Last year I wasn't here the whole year, so I felt like, over the first couple of months this season, it was a little bit more about trying to establish myself as a regular player in this league," Stewart shares. "That was definitely the goal to start the year, and I've been fortunate as far as that goes. Now, I think I've earned the trust of my coaches and teammates. So, the last couple of months has been about trying to take another step past being just a regular player in this league and trying to be one of the better ones."
The blueliner is grateful to get extra shifts on the power-play and penalty-kill in the last few months, both units being ranked top seven in the AHL.
Dean Stewart with a remarkable play to break up a 3-on-1. pic.twitter.com/PBzQ2YrScE— Connor Hrabchak (@ConnorHrabchak1) March 5, 2023
It has been quite a while since Stewart took part in a playoff series. He says he played a few playoff games in 2020-21 with the ECHL"s Wichita Thunder but adds he got injured before they finished the first-round.
Prior to that, Stewart participated in the postseason in his junior year of college with the University of Nebraska-Omaha but he adds those were just three-game series. So, the last time he played a complete best-of-seven series was all the way back in 2015-16 with his hometown Portage Terriers.
"That was the last time I've been a part of a deep playoff push (The 2016 Terriers beat the Steinbach Pistons 4-1 in the Turnbull Cup Finals). There are definitely things to draw on and take with me going into the playoffs this season," says Stewart. "Obviously, the game is a little bit different but there's still a lot of the same things going on. The same qualities make up good teams at the MJHL level all the way up to the NHL. I think that'll help me be comfortable playing in the playoffs and being a key player. Anytime you can have an experience like that at 16 or 17, you learn lessons that stick with your forever."
During that playoff run, Stewart put up a point per game, while he and the Terriers only lost one game en route to the championship. While he expects to lose more than one game along the way, the Portage native and the rest of the Moose are hoping to start a similar run after their last game of the season on April 16.