Goalie is a position that can single handedly win or lose a playoff series in hockey. Most teams that win championships at the professional level benefit from a strong last line of defense. On Friday in Manchester, a goalie duel decided the game between the home town Monarchs and visiting Norfolk Admirals in game one of their opening round playoff series.
As pointed out in our preview of the series, Manchester loves to use their overall team speed to create offense. That is exactly what they did to open the scoring midway through the first period. After collecting a pass from Jordan Weal, Michael Mersch chipped the puck past an Admiral defender at the offensive blue line and drove past him to collect the loose puck. Winning the foot race, Mersch found Sean Backman streaking towards the net and fed him with a pass. The puck looked to hit the back-checking defender’s stick before hitting off of Backman’s and beating goalie John Gibson.
A quiet second period passed in which neither team scored. Early in the third, Manchester looked to be in trouble, as the team went down by two men and gave Norfolk a five-on-three advantage with enough time to go to work. The Monarchs’ penalty killers went to work and successfully denied Norfolk a goal, preserving their 1-0 lead.
Later in the period, the Monarchs would get an insurance goal, as Zach O’Brien scored his first goal of the playoffs. As the team worked the puck around the offensive zone, Andy Andreoff slowed down play, waiting for his fellow forwards to join him on the attack. O’Brien drove the net hard and Andreoff passed him the puck in open space, where the former QMJHLer shot five hole on Gibson to extend the lead to two.
From there, goalie JF Berube shut the door and earned his first career AHL playoff shutout in his first AHL playoff game. In the early stages of the game, Berube fought the puck, failing to cleanly stop and control rebounds. As the game went on, he found his game and smothered every shot thrown in his direction. The ability to improve and fix his game while play is going on is a huge benefit for not only Berube but his team. Even though he faced few grade-A chances, the French-Canadian goalie stopped all 30 shots he faced and ensured victory in a key game to start the series.
“Yeah, there’s some bounces sometimes that you want to have. You want to keep those chances away. I think I remember two that came out of my glove. (I have a) new glove, we’ll blame it on that,” Berube joked on failing to cleanly handle the puck in the early minutes of the game.
No one was more physically dominant on the ice on Friday than Manchester defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk. A well rounded defenseman who can be used in all situations, Bodnarchuk’s physical play was on full display, while still maintaining his integrity defensively. Though he would be considered undersized by new age NHL standards, the former Bruins prospect didn’t allow that to hold him back, and he pushed around men much larger and stronger than him. On top of throwing countless hits, Bodnarchuk blocked shots and broke up chances in the defensive zone.
“They (have) the top penalty kill in the league and we know that. I think we can sharpen up and be a little crisper on our power play, maybe (make) a little better decisions with the puck. At times, we were giving away momentum with blue line turnovers, not getting pucks in and out. But, like I said, we’re happy with the 2-0 win and we’ll build on that,” said Bodnarchuk on what improvements the team can make for game two.
Up front, another physical player let his presence be felt, though it wasn’t through intimidation and big hits. While Andreoff was a solid physical presence, as he is almost every game, his biggest contributions came in the offensive zone. On O’Brien’s goal, the forward showed great patience to wait for his teammates to enter the zone, instead of chipping the puck down the boards and giving up puck possession. He was also strong on the cycle and was on the ice for some of the best offensive shifts by his team.
On the other end of the ice from Berube, Gibson showed why he will be the key factor in his team’s success. Facing 26 shots, the young goalie stopped 24 of them, with one of the goals he allowed being one that most NHL goalies would have not stopped. Like Berube, Gibson wasn’t forced to make too many quality stops, but he kept his team in the game for the entire 60 minutes. As long as he can continue to play as well as he did in game one, his team will have a chance to steal a game they might not deserve to win.
Though his minus-two rating may lead some to believe Sami Vatanen had a poor outing, he was one of the better players for coach Trent Yawney. Multiple occasions saw the Finnish defenseman carry the puck from coast to coast before Monarchs defenders were forced to make solid defensive plays to not allow a scoring chance. In a game where his team was shut out, Vatanen was the biggest offensive threat and put his smooth skating on full display for 60 minutes.
Game two between the Monarchs and Admirals takes place on Saturday, April 26 at 7 PM.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Friday were as follows:
Michael Mersch – Jordan Weal – Sean Backman
Steve Quailer – Nick Shore – Zach O’Brien
Andy Andreoff – Linden Vey – Nic Dowd
James Livingston – Hunter Bishop – Scott Sabourin
Brayden McNabb – Jeff Schultz
Derek Forbort – Andrew Campbell
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
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