When the AHL playoff schedule was announced, many were baffled as to why the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Manchester Monarchs, were slated to only have two games at home in the opening round. Normally, the higher seed is given the choice to start the best-of-five opening round series with two games at home or end with three in front of their home town crowd. A conflict in Norfolk’s arena and an unwillingness from the AHL to break away from the 2-3 format left Manchester forced to take the first two games of the series at home and finish with three in the home of the Admirals.
Having only two home games, it was imperative that Manchester won both of them to allow themselves three games to close out the series. Unfortunately, a 3-2 loss on Saturday means the team must now take two of three on the road.
After a slow start in game one, the Monarchs came out of the gate on their A game, dominating the first period from start to finish. With just over 7 minutes left in the opening frame, an extended repair to the glass behind Admirals goalie John Gibson looked as a possible killer for the Monarchs’ momentum. Instead, the team scored two goals in the final minutes to close out the period with a 2-0 lead.
The first goal came off of the stick of Nic Dowd, which also was the first of his professional career. After a Linden Vey shot hit the post, the puck bounced around the slot in front of Gibson before settling down on the stick of Dowd. From there, the former St. Cloud State Husky rifled a shot top shelf for the 1-0 lead. Vey and Andy Andreoff picked up assists on the play.
Just over a minute later, Zach O’Brien scored his second goal of the series. After Nick Shore cycled the puck along the boards to Steve Qualier behind the net, O’Brien received the puck from Quailer, stepped out past the goal line, and buried a low angle shot on Gibson.
Up by two goals and controlling the game in every aspect, momentum was fully in the court of the Monarchs. That is, until Quailer decided to fight Nolan Yonkman early in the second period. A thrashing by the hulking Yonkman energized his team and swung momentum to the side of Norfolk.
Five minutes later, Max Friberg scored a power play goal to cut the lead to 2-1. A shot from above the faceoff circle by Dave Steckel was blocked before making it to JF Berube and bounced right to an open Friberg, who had the entire open net to shoot at. The goal ended a 174:32 minute shutout streak on home ice for Berube.
Half way through the middle period, Steckel would once again find the stat sheet, picking up his first goal of the series. A Steve Eminger shot from the faceoff dot to the left of Berube was slightly deflected by Steckel and went five hole on Berube as the goalie tried to poke check the puck. Smooth skating defenseman Sami Vatanen also picked up an assist, along with Eminger.
Norfolk would take their first lead of the series in the third period, as William Karlsson converted on a give-and-go with Nic Kerdiles. After collecting the pass from Kerdiles, Karlsson drove the net and let a shot go that looked to be gloved by Berube. After entering Berube’s glove, the puck slipped out and fell into the net.
With the goalie pulled and looking for an equalizer, Gibson showed why he is regarded as one of the best goaltending prospects in the world. Sliding to his left, the goalie used his glove to absolutely rob Brayden McNabb of a sure fire goal. From there, his team tightened up defensively and shut down the game, giving them a 3-2 win and tying the series at one.
After a brilliant night in a shutout effort, Berube struggled on Saturday. Two of the three goals allowed were ones Berube should have had no problem handling. On Steckel’s goal, Berube attempted a highly questionable poke check. The puck was still moving towards the net while he opted to make the move, opening up his five hole for the puck to perfectly slide through. The game winning goal was in and out of his glove, one he surely would like back. Time and time again, Berube has proven he can bounce back from poor performances, which is exactly what he must do if his team wants to move on to the second round of the AHL playoffs.
While Vey’s line dominated possession times, outside of a goal on a scramble play, the center failed to create anything offensively. Countless times, Vey held onto the puck for long periods of time before ultimately turning it over. While his wingers Andreoff and Dowd had strong games, Vey will need to do more to help his team win in this series.
For Dowd, Saturday was his best game as a professional, and it was only capped off by scoring his first pro goal. Dowd also was credited for four shots and was buzzing around the offensive zone all night. Playing wing for the first time, the transition seemed like a non-issue, as he was constantly working all game and looks to finally feel comfortable at the professional level.
“Definitely feels good to get the monkey off your back and be able to contribute to the team. I think that’s obviously what I’m worried about – helping the guys any way possible. I know I’m the new guy here, so (I’m) just trying to fit in and help out. I’m happy to be here,” Dowd said on his first goal with the team.
Once again, Gibson kept his team in the game for the entire 60 minutes. Despite being grossly outplayed in the first period, Norfolk was within striking distance thanks to Gibson. At the end, his monstrous save kept his team ahead. As highlighted in our playoff preview, his play would likely be a deciding factor in the series and it was Saturday night.
“I think that first period was the best worst thing that could happen. I think that opened our eyes and (made us) realize what kind of series it would be. We realized it was now or never, and when we play desperate hockey, that’s how we can play,” said Gibson on what sparked their offense in the second period.
Game three in the series takes place on Wednesday, April 30 at 7:15 PM in Norfolk.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Saturday 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
Andrew Campbell – Colin Miller
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
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