For the Manchester Monarchs, being on the ice at 10 AM isn’t necessarily a novel idea, as the team regularly holds their practices at that time. However, once a year, when they step onto the ice Wednesday morning, they do so in front of a much larger crowd. The team holds a promotional game called Education Day, where kids from local schools pack Verizon Wireless Arena for a matinee hockey game.
While teams like the Kings sometimes struggle with earlier start time, their AHL affiliates had no problem getting up for their date versus the Worcester Sharks. Manchester dominated from the opening puck drop until the final buzzer, cruising to a 5-1 victory and extending their winning streak to six games.
A theme of many of their games this year, Manchester would strike first, scoring the game’s opening goal. Halfway through the opening frame, Zach O’Brien would score in his first game back since suffering an injury against Lehigh Valley. Entering the offensive zone on the left wing, Brian O’Neill made a short pass to center Nick Shore, who backhanded the puck from the left dot to O’Brien in the slot for an easy tap-in.
O’Neill would later add his first of two goals of the day while shorthanded just under eight minutes into the second period. Once again coming down the left side of the ice, the forward saw his teammate driving the net and tried to feed him with a pass. The puck would hit a Sharks defender and take a fortuitous bounce into the back of the net.
One and a half minutes later, Worcester would score to make it a 2-1 game. After stopping the initial shot, goalie JF Berube was unable to stop Evan Trupp from burying the rebound from right in front of the goalie. A Monarchs’ defenseman tried to block out Trupp, but was unable to stop him from sending the puck five-hole on Berube.
After Worcester’s quick answer to O’Neill’s goal, Manchester would respond with one of their own. A mere 45 seconds after the visitors first got on the board, O’Neill would tally his second of the game thanks once again to a bit of luck. For the second time, O’Neill’s attempt to find a teammate would be redirected by a Worcester player and trickle across the goal line to extend his team’s lead back to two goals.
In the third period, red hot Colin Miller would score his fifth goal of the season, matching his total from 65 games last year. Entering the offensive zone, Jordan Weal dished off to Justin Auger, whose attempt to find Weal driving to the net failed, but was hit home by the speedy Miller as he too skated toward Worcester’s JP Anderson.
Already in line for the victory, the home team would add insult to injury by scoring with just 15 seconds left in the game. Scott Sabourin’s attempted pass was deflected by a defending stick, but the puck would find its way to Kevin Gravel’s chest as he skated into the slot. Gravel was able to bat the puck out of mid air, beating Anderson between his legs for his first professional goal.
Seconds later, the final buzzer sounded, as the home team swarmed winning goaltender, Berube, who picked up his eighth victory of the 2014-15 campaign. Wednesday was one of the slower games for Berube, as he only faced 23 shots, while watching his team pepper Anderson with 40 of their own.
Having already shown he can play solid defensive hockey, O’Brien’s offensive talents came out on Wednesday. The former QMJHL player has a knack for finding the back of the net. Playing with Shore for the majority of last season, the two reconnected to each register two points versus Worcester.
“Yeah, I got put with Shore and O’Neill today. Things were clicking right from the start – they’re two great players and they’re easy to play with, so that definitely helped me come back and play a pretty good game,” O’Brien said of his return to the lineup and playing a more offensive role.
Another player returning from injury was AHL veteran Andrew Bodnarchuk. Suffering a knee injury in training camp, the defenseman was given a six-to-eight week recovery time, the Halifax resident took his time recovering, as the team wanted to ensure his knee would be able to stand up to the rigors of professional hockey. Having not played a single game during the preseason or regular season, there were definite signs of rust in his game, but overall, his return alongside defensive partner Vincent LoVerde went well.
“I was a little nervous about it, but to tell the truth, I felt a lot better than what I expected. I didn’t really put any huge expectations on myself heading into today. I wanted, sort of, to get in there and see how I felt,” the team’s assistant captain spoke of his return. “I thought, especially early in the game, I felt really good. Like I said, I think I surprised myself a little bit as far as how I felt. I’m definitely not stepping right into where I felt I was last year, but I really don’t think I’m too far off – maybe another game or so. I was pretty pleased with how I felt today and I guess encouraged, you could say.”
While the focus may shy away from him, O’Neill has continued to play tremendous hockey, showing he can be used anywhere in the lineup with relative success. Though his goals both required a certain amount of luck, O’Neill is a tenacious player, capable of being responsible in his own zone, and creative when on the attack. The Yale graduate was quick to point out that he also scored two goals during last year’s Education Day game.
“I think it’s scoring by committee. Obviously, some individual efforts have been really good of late. All four lines are really scoring for us. That’s a big problem for other teams, because you don’t know who to shut down,” O’Neill said of the team’s recent offensive prowess. “We spread out some of the lines, and you really can’t key on any line, so I think we’ve had some really good success going one through four and rolling four lines and getting contributions from every line. We’re just tough to stop right now, and hopefully we can keep that scoring up.”
Head coach Mike Stothers opted to dress seven defenseman on Wednesday, something he has done many times in this young season. Gravel took several shifts as a forward, not looking out of place at any point. Often though, his defensive tendencies would get the better of him in his own zone, and he’d get too low in his coverage. Overall, Gravel played a strong game, but don’t expect a full time position change any time soon.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Wednesday were as follows:
Brian O’Neill – Nick Shore – Zach O’Brien
David Van der Gulik – Nic Dowd – Sean Backman
Michael Mersch – Jordan Weal – Justin Auger
Kevin Gravel – Andrew Crescenzi – Scott Sabourin
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Kevin Raine
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