While the Los Angeles Kings are currently battling their Northern California nemesis, the San Jose Sharks, in an opening round playoff series, their AHL affiliate in Manchester is set to kick off a different sort of Pacific Division battle later tonight.
After winning their third Atlantic Division title in franchise history, and finishing first in the Eastern Conference, the Monarchs find themselves set to face the eighth-seeded Norfolk Admirals, who just so happen to be the top affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks.
Like the Kings, the Monarchs were one of the better defensive teams in their league. Their 188 goals allowed was third fewest in the league. While scoring has been an issue at the NHL level, Manchester has had no trouble lighting the lamp. Scoring 244 regular season goals put the team fifth in the AHL in overall offense.
Leading the team up front was Jordan Weal, who scored 70 points in 76 games, fifth best in league scoring. A shifty player with tremendous vision, Weal distributes the puck better than most in the league. At the same time, he’s proven he can score when needed.
Coach Mark Morris will also benefit from the recent return of center Linden Vey, recently ranked as the Kings top overall prospect (link).
Defensively, the team relies on being one strong unit. Morris has the ability to roll all six defenseman, rather than relying on one pair to eat heavy minutes. Distributing ice time should allow for less wear and tear on the defenders, providing extra energy to be more involved in the game. Like the Kings in 2012, this year’s Monarchs defenseman should also benefit from playing as fairly consistent pairs all year. Andrew Bodnarchuk and Vincent LoVerde have spent nearly every game together when healthy and the duo sit first and second respectively in AHL plus/minus rating.
In goal, rookie JF Berube has truly found his game during the second half of the season. A fundamentally strong goalie, Berube has also shown the ability to make highlight reel saves to bail his team out of trouble. The key for the young netminder it to bring his highest level of performance each night, something discussed in detail in a recent feature story (linked here) by John Hoven for LAKings.com.
While Manchester has no problems scoring or defending, their biggest pitfall has been their poor special teams efforts. For most of the season, their power play was among the worst in the league. After the Kings acquired Brayden McNabb at the trade deadline and assigned him to Manchester, the team’s work with the man advantage has vastly improved, ending the season with the 19th overall power play. Conversely, the team’s penalty kill spent a long stretch at the bottom of the league before too finishing 19th overall.
Battling for a playoff spot until the last few games of the season, the Admirals are already accustomed to playing in important games. While Manchester had secured a playoff spot and the division crown weeks in advance, Norfolk had to fight just to continue their season, meaning they may be more ready for the intense hockey the playoff brings from the opening faceoff.
A team that has had its struggles to score all year, Norfolk will enter the playoffs without top prospect Emerson Etem, called up to the Ducks, alongside veteran defender Mark Fistric. The silver lining for the team will be the return of one of hockey’s best goaltending prospects in John Gibson, as well as the offensively gifted defenseman Sami Vatanen.
Norfolk’s biggest challenge will be shutting down the Monarchs in five-on-five play. One of the best teams in the league at even strength, Manchester is lethal in the transition, using its great team speed to its advantage. To stand a chance in the series, the Admirals must find a way to clog the neutral zone and not allow Manchester the open room they rely on to create offense on the rush.
The best-of-five game series opens with the first of two games in Manchester later tonight Remaing games, as needed (up to three), will be played in Norfolk.
Prior to getting things going, we caught up with Vey and rookie Michael Mersh for some quick quotes…
Vey on his season overall, frequently moving between Manchester and LA:
“It’s been an up and down year. That’s part of being a professional. You make the most of wherever you are. The best thing about this is that no matter where we are, we’re always playing hockey. That’s a pretty special life to get to do that.”
Vey on if it has been hard to keep focused with all the movement:
“Yeah, I think it is. I think the difference in the leagues is a lot. The detail up there is a lot different than down here, and obviously the roles as well. For the most part, its been a good year. Obviously, everybody wants to be up there. You’re a little disappointed when you come down. We’ve got such a good team here, (and) hopefully we can go on a long run (in the playoffs).”
Mersch on signing with the Kings and if it adds anything with the team being a perennial contender:
“Absolutely, it’s a great organization. I’m excited for the opportunity to work hard and hopefully make my way through the ranks here. It’s a great opportunity. Hopefully, [I can] grab it and hold on to it.”
Mersch on not signing after his junior season (i.e. the summer of 2013):
“There was some talk with them about that. I chose to stay back at school. I really like the organization and it’s an awesome place. I was always excited about the opportunity, but I value education and getting my degree, so I’m working towards that. At the same time, I get to play hockey, and now I’m here at the end of the year. I’m happy for the opportunity and signing with them is a great chance for me.”
Mersch on if he looks forward to possibly matching against former Wisconsin teammate (and Anaheim Ducks prospect) Nic Kerdiles in the NHL:
“It’s funny, we talked a little bit [right before he signed]. We’re close. Obviously he was a little younger, so you kind of mentor him a little bit back at school. But, we’re looking forward to it. We communicate all the time, so hopefully we’ll have the chance to do that.”
Mersch on the transition to the pro game so far:
“It’s a little different game, with the fighting and everything. It’s a part of the game and I understand that. That was probably the biggest thing. We have some tough guys on this team – we don’t back down.”
Mersch on if the speed of the game was initially overwhelming:
“Guys are always bigger and stronger at the next level everywhere you go – even if it’s from juniors to pro, or midgets to Canadian junior hockey league. Whatever it is, the speed of the game is going to be a little quicker, so you (have) got to get used to that. Everybody individually has their own type of game they play. You just have to figure out how it transitions to the next level.”
Mersch on scoring his first two pro goals:
“It was good, a little bit of a relief. It gives you a little bit more confidence – (your) teammates know that you can contribute to the team a little. I was a little snake bitten the first few games. I had a few chances, but they weren’t going in for me, so it was nice.”
Mersch on if he has any plans for the puck from his first pro goal:
“I have a collection of pucks in my basement. I kind of put them up on the window sill – like a pyramid – so maybe I’ll add it on there.”
Follow along on twitter (@AndyTonge1) for more Monarchs news, notes, and full playoff coverage.
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