Despite finishing the regular season atop the AHL’s Eastern Conference, there was one team who had the Manchester Monarchs’ number. Every game the team played against the St. John’s IceCaps was tough, with Manchester losing six of the 10 contests. Manchester was ready for a dance with their division rivals, as they scored early and often, winning 6-2 and ending their two game goalless streak.
Having returned from his one game stint with the LA Kings, David Van der Gulik made an impact early, forcing a turnover on the forecheck that lead to a goal. As John Albert tried to skate out from behind his own net with the puck, Van der Gulik knocked the puck into the slot, where Scott Sabourin beat NHL veteran netminder Peter Budaj to give the Monarchs a 1-0 lead.
St. John’s would briefly tie the game on the powerplay, as Ben Chiarot tapped a puck behind Monarchs’ goalie JF Berube. In the right circle, Scott Kosmachuk let a shot go, hitting Berube in the arm and dropping onto the goal line. As the French-Canadian goalie tried to find the puck, Chiarot pushed it behind him to make the score 1-1.
Just 35 seconds later, Manchester would reclaim the lead on Sean Backman’s second goal of the year. Collecting a pass on top of the left offensive circle from Brian O’Neill, Kevin Gravel threw the puck low towards Budaj’s glove side, where Backman tipped it out of mid air and to the back of the net.
Early in the second period, Colin Miller would score the first of his two power play goals, extending the lead to 3-1. Jordan Weal had the puck towards the right point, took a few strides to draw the defender towards him, and found Miller on the blue line for a one-timer that beat a screened Budaj.
While the game’s next goal would also come with the Monarchs up a man, it wasn’t the hometown team who lit the lamp. As Jamie McBain attempted a cross ice pass to his defensive partner, John Albert stepped up to intercept the pass and turned on the jets to go in on a shorthanded breakaway. Albert made a nice forehand-to-backhand move, opening Berube up enough for the IceCaps leading scorer to put up his 3rd goal of the year.
A minute later, Miller once again found the scoresheet. After Weal was kicked out of the faceoff dot, O’Neill came in to win the draw straight to Miller, who wristed the puck blocker side for his second of the night.
Manchester would add a third power play goal, as McBain registered his first goal with the team. A scramble in front of Budaj saw McBain swoop in, find the puck in the slot, and beat a sprawling Budaj for the 5-2 lead.
In the third period, University of Wisconsin alumni Michael Mersch scored his first of the year for good measure. Entering the offensive zone on an odd-man rush, Mersch opted to shoot, scoring top shelf on a perfectly placed shot. The goal gave his team a 6-2 lead, which his team held on to, and gave the team their fourth victory of the year.
Registering an assist on Mersch’s goal capped off a three point night for Miller, who played his best hockey of the year. The smooth skating defenseman has all the raw tools to become an excellent defender in the NHL, but is now tasked with putting it all together and making smarter decisions. At times, Miller can make risky plays that come back to bite him and his team in the rear. Saturday saw Miller play a solid 60 minutes of hockey and he was rewarded with it on the score sheet.
“It was good. Obviously, I’m happy about that. Honestly, I’m more happy about being (a) plus 2. I think the last couple nights, I was dash a couple, so it was good to get in the plus,” spoke Miller on netting his first two of the year.
With a deep defensive core that features eight healthy bodies now, ice time is limited, and Kevin Gravel has learned that the hard way. Saturday was only his third game on the season, but he took full advantage of it. The St. Cloud State alum used his stick well to clog passing lanes, and made smart decisions with the puck. Though he isn’t an offensive defenseman, Gravel’s transition game was on point, as he did an excellent job getting the puck up ice to his teammates. His assist came on a perfectly placed shot that almost appeared as if he was aiming for Backman’s stick in mid air.
“You know what? I thought he did very well. Coming in, he hadn’t played since back in Norfolk, so that’s a long time. He practices hard, he prepares well, but you know what? There’s nothing like game action. The pace – I thought he did very well. I thought he was up ice. I thought he was real responsible with the puck, and he made some good plays. Good for him,” coach Mike Stothers commented on Gravel’s play.
Sabourin was also rewarded with a multi-point night, playing the best game of the year, which could have been even bigger. Two of Sabourin’s shots wripped off the post, barely staying out of the net. While Saturday was a great game for the forward, he now must build on it. After a hot streak last season, Sabourin cooled off and went months without scoring, playing ineffective hockey. To continue to grow as a prospect, he must find a way to put forth the same type of effort he did versus St. John’s on a nightly basis.
Having played in back-to-back games, Sunday’s rematch with Hershey is a good opportunity to get Patrik Bartosak another start, as Stothers has previously indicated he does not want his goalies to play three games in three days.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Saturday were as follows:
Brian O’Neill – Jordan Weal – Sean Backman
Michael Mersch – Nick Shore – Justin Auger
David Van der Gulik – Nic Dowd – Scott Sabourin
Josh Gratton – Ryan Horvat – Zach O’Brien
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Vincent LoVerde
Kevin Gravel – Jamie McBain
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