Like their NHL parent, they just completed a regular season filled with several peaks and valleys, roster swap-outs and key injuries. The Monarchs led the division earlier in the year, only to fall in the standings and then qualify for the playoffs during the final week of the season – ending up in the eighth spot. Sound familiar? So, again – like LA – Manchester will now take on the league’s top team when they open the playoffs later tonight.
“For the most part, it’s been a good season so far,” says defenseman Jake Muzzin. “As a team, we’ve had our struggles and we’ve had some winning streaks. So, we’ve been hot and cold.”
Although true, there’s no more time for erratic play. It’s going to be the old cliche of ‘everybody pulling on the rope in the same direction’ if they plan on upsetting the Norfolk Admirals in the first round. Separated by 30 points in the final standings, Muzzin still believes in his teammates.
“As a team, we don’t have any huge all-stars,” Muzzin said. “It’s more of a collective effort from everyone to be successful.”
But, the overall group was a work-in-progress this time around and the offense suffered accordingly. Andrei Loktionov, Slava Voynov, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan were all lost to the NHL for large parts of the season. Plus, with the well documented departures of Oscar Moller and Bud Holloway last summer, it’s easy to understand why the team scored 48 fewer goals, a 19% drop off from just a season ago.
They were so shorthanded, defensemen were moved into forward positions for several games mid-year – although Muzzin’s number was never called for such an assignment.
“I don’t know how good of a forward I would be,” he laughed.
Defense. That’s his bread and butter and the area head coach Mark Morris tried to focus his attention on this year.
“He’s been on me about just playing my position and moving the puck to the forwards and supporting the play from the rear,” Muzzin shared. “Being consistent every night and consistently improving your game and getting better, those are the biggest things I have to continue to do.”
Asked to summarize his development this season, Muzzin said – “I think I’ve improved this year. Mentally and positionally on the ice, sometimes you get a little carried away and try to do too much. But, (overall), I’d say I’m on par with my season and my development.”
The third-year pro also has a clear vision of who he patterns his game after – “Shea Weber is hands down, one of the best defensemen in the league. His big shot, his physical play and his all around consistency and leadership on the ice – he’s a guy I want to be like when I hopefully make it back to the NHL.”
He spent 11 games with the Kings last year and a return is likely, as early as next season. But for now, his focus is on supporting the Monarchs in the AHL playoffs.
“Soupy (Andrew Campbell) and I have played together for a couple months now,” Muzzin said, when talking about how things have started to settle down a bit of late. “He’s a simple d-man to play with and I think we compliment each other well.”
Another member of the d-core who Muzzin’s been impressed with is rookie Nick Deslauriers.
“He’s been great. The guy has a lot of energy, he plays hard, he hits hard and he skates well. He’s a lot of fun in the dressing room and on the ice. He’s been a great addition and I think he’s a great player.”
Muzzin also prefers to look at all of the roster changes in Manchester through a positive lens.
“It’s a good competitive vibe (right now) for guys to get spots and to play. It just pushes guys to be better offensively and play better. It’s good competition and with the injuries that we’ve had, these guys can step in and play a role and help us out.”
When pushing him a little harder, he admitted the benefits of change weren’t limited exclusively to things at the rink. On the road, he’s been roommates with Martin Jones, Jeff Zatkoff and even Voynov at points. But, when at home in Manchester, he had been sharing a place with King and Nolan. So, even though he’s a little lonely since their call-ups in February, he’s still managed to make lemonade from lemons.
“I’ve dipped into their clothes a little bit,” Muzzin said. “I’m going to take advantage of my situation. If I’m alone, I’m going to use all the clothes and other stuff I have at the house.”
Don’t feel bad for him either. Plenty of other guys on the team have helped keep his spirits high after his roomies moved on.
“The group of players we have here, we’re all pretty young and pretty energetic. A lot of jokes are happening all the time. We have a great group of guys and everybody likes each other. It’s a tight group in there.”
And to the surprise of nobody, that includes the Super Yooper, Ray Kaunisto.
“He hasn’t slowed down at all. He’s a jokester through and through that guy,” Muzzin said with a big laugh.
Now it’s crunch time though. Later tonight the Monarchs begin their climb up a tough hill in Norfolk. And for Muzzin, he’s looking to come up big again. Last year in the post season he put up three goals in seven games. This time around, Manchester will need all they can get from every single player if they’re able to move on to the second round.