AHL: Monarchs clinch playoff spot in victory

Last season, the Manchester Monarchs barely snuck into a playoff spot at the very end of the season. This year, the team has sat atop the standings in the entire AHL for large portions of the year. On Friday, the team had a chance to secure their spot in the postseason. A victory over the Worcester Sharks would make the team the first in the Eastern Conference guaranteed to extend their season.

The Monarchs stormed out of the gate, scoring 1:21 into the game. With the puck in the offensive zone, Linden Vey passed to Colin Miller at the right point, who fed the puck to his defensive partner Jeff Schultz. Standing near the middle of the ice, Schultz took a slap shot towards Sharks’ goalie Harri Sateri, when James Livingston redirected the puck for his seventh goal of the year and first versus his old team.

Nearing the midway mark of the period, the Monarchs extended their lead to two off of a Hunter Bishop tally. Fresh out of the penalty box, Brian O’Neill received a stretch pass from Colin Miller and entered the offensive zone, ultimately finding Bishop as he drove to the net. The streaking Bishop utilized his speed to beat the Worcester defender in a foot race, collected O’Neill pass in the slot, and fired high blocker side on Sateri.

Five minutes later, the Monarchs extended their lead to 3-0 on a goal that will haunt Sateri for days to come. Holding the puck in the high slot, Scott Sabourin took a shot that found its way through traffic and was tipped in by Steve Quailer. Sabourin’s initial shot was rather weak and the puck didn’t drastically change angles as it slowly trickled through the Worcester goalie’s five hole.

Brian O’Neill, already leading the team in goals, would add his 22nd of the year on the power play in the last two minutes of the period. Skating the puck up ice, Andrew Bodnarchuk made a nice deke around Matt Pelech before having his stick tied up. Jordan Weal jumped on the loose puck in the slot and fired one off of Sateri’s pads, where it rebounded right to O’Neill for the put back. Manchester took a 4-0 lead into the first intermission and thoroughly dominated Worcester for 20 minutes.

The second period saw no scoring, but Worcester fought hard to try and claw their way back into the game. After being outshot 13-6 in the first period, the Sharks would take 12 shots to Manchester’s five. Despite a much improved effort, the team could not find a way to crack Monarchs’ goalie JF Berube.

In the opening minutes of the third period, Worcester would finally find an answer, as Dylan DeMelo was credited with his second goal of the year. Entering the Monarchs’ zone, Adam Schmidt threw a cross ice pass to DeMelo for a one timer. The defenseman’s shot was blocked by Manchester captain Andrew Campbell, deflected into the air, and hit off Berube’s back and into the net.

Manchester would regain their four goal lead on O’Neill’s second power play goal of the night. Collecting the puck in his own zone, Weal carried it up the ice and into the Sharks’ zone before dishing off to Vey. After working his way towards the right corner, Vey found O’Neill open in the slot. O’Neill’s initial shot missed the net but the Yale Bulldog found his own rebound and bounced the puck off of a sprawling Sateri’s pad and in the net. The goal would make the game 5-1, where the game would end and secure Manchester’s spot in the post season.

After only facing six shots in the first, it would have been easy for Berube to be caught napping by the Sharks’ strong push. Instead, the goalie remained focused and shut the door while his team struggled to maintain their play from the first 20 minutes. At points in the year, Berube had a tendency to allow pucks to squeeze through him and the gaps in between his extremities. Over the past month, he has cleaned up this aspect of his game and has stepped up his game considerably as the team nears the end of the regular season.

“Of course, you know, I worked hard to be in that position and when you work hard, good things happen to you. So, I just want to make sure I keep those good habits. And, you know, I want to play for my teammates. They’re working hard in front of me,” said Berube on his season, going from battling for the backup role to start the year to leading his team to the playoffs as the starter.

With every step up in competition you take in hockey, there is a bit of an adjustment. Some may take very little time, whereas others may take months to feel comfortable. For Miller, his season has been a roller coaster filled with highs and lows. At times he’s looked strong, utilizing his great skating and powerful shot to create offense. Other times, he has had a problem with turnovers. On top of inconsistency issues, the trade to acquire Brayden McNabb has seen Miller lose his spot as a regular in the lineup.

Friday’s game saw Miller show the upside in his game. He used his natural abilities to create plays and find the open man, registering three assists and earning the third star of the game.

“You know, his focus has come around full circle. Now it’s a matter of being consistent on a nightly basis and keeping that rolling for long periods of time. He’s a guy with a ton of natural ability and, you know, the better he defends, the more he’s going to see the ice,” coach Mark Morris said in regards to Miller’s game. “You can’t teach his natural abilities, but to think the game at a high level is his next challenge. I thought tonight was a good step in that direction.”

Manchester announced the signings of Ben Danford and Brendan Ellis to amateur and professional tryouts respectively. Both players recently completed their collegiate careers and Ellis played three games in the ECHL before joining the Monarchs. Danford made his debut Friday, as Vincent LoVerde is suffering from a hand injury that will keep him out on a week-to-week basis. Miller returned to the lineup thanks in part to McNabb being banged up and unable to play. He will sit out on Saturday as well but is expected to be back next weekend.

Mathias Niederberger, the backup to Berube for a large part of the year, was reassigned to the Ontario Reign, as the recently signed Patrik Bartosak now takes over the reigns as the Monarchs’ second goalie.

The Monarchs travel to Lewiston to take on the Portland Pirates on Saturday, February 29 at 7 PM.

Line combinations and defensive pairings on Friday were as follows:

FORWARDS

Brian O’Neill – Jordan Weal – Sean Backman

Hunter Bishop – Nick Shore – Zach O’Brien

Andy Andreoff – Linden Vey – James Livingston

Steve Quailer – Ian O’Connor – Scott Sabourin

DEFENSEMAN

Derek Forbort – Andrew Campbell

Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller

Andrew Bodnarchuk – Ben Danford

GOALTENDERS

JF Berube

Patrik Bartosak

Follow @AndyTonge1 for more Monarchs news and notes.

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