If history has taught us anything about hockey, it is that a hot goalie can steal games for his team. For decades, games have single-handedly been won and lost on the backs of netminders. On Saturday, the Manchester Monarchs ran into a goaltender at the top of his game, yet still found a way to pull out a 3-1 victory.
Playing each other for the second time in two nights, the Monarchs and Providence Bruins wasted no time trying to feel each other out, as both team’s got into the face of their opposition from the opening puck drop to the final buzzer.
In the first period, Providence had full control of the game for the first 15 minutes. Ahead 7-1 in shots, Providence looked like the more energized team. Returning to the lineup on Saturday, Zach O’Brien might not have found the scoresheet, but him and his line mates sure made a huge impact. Though they didn’t score, their dominant shift later through the first period swung momentum in the way of the hometown Monarchs.
With just under a minute remaining in the opening stanza, Michael Mersch redirected home his ninth goal of the season to put his team ahead 1-0. A Providence clearing attempt was kept in by Vincent LoVerde, whose quick point shot was tipped by Mersch top shelf past goalie Jeremy Smith.
In the second period, the Monarchs continued their domination, yet still saw the game tied when Ethan Werek beat JF Berube. Midway through the middle frame, Werek deflected a slap-pass into the back of the net. The power play goal came seconds after Manchester controlled the puck in the offensive zone and killing off plenty of time on Scott Sabourin’s penalty.
Later, Brian O’Neill would score the eventual game-winning goal on a five-on-three power play. Along the left boards, Colin Miller fed Jordan Weal for a shot near the point, which was blocked away by Smith. Parked on the side of the net, O’Neill cleaned up the rebound into the yawning net.
Between O’Brien’s momentum changing shift and O’Neill’s goal, the Monarchs out-shot the Bruins 28-5. Failing to score on the two-man advantage would have been disastrous, as in that time, the Monarchs struggled to beat Smith and a penalty kill of that nature could have allowed Providence to swing the game into their favor.
Early in the final 20 minutes of regulation, Mike Richards had a chance to ice the game as he came in on a short-handed breakaway. Smith made a miraculous save, similar to this one made by Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, to keep his team down by only one.
Unfortunately for Smith, a lackluster effort by the team in front of him lead to defeat, as O’Neill stole the puck at his defensive blue line, gained the red line, and sealed his team’s fate with an empty-net goal. Manchester would win 3-1 and double up Providence in shots, 38-19.
Playing his first game in nearly a month, O’Brien made an immense impact on how the game turned out, despite ending the night without a point. His first period shift, which he nearly scored on, was the catalyst for the Monarchs to pick up the energy in their game. In the roughly 45 minutes of playing following said shift, his team only allowed 12 shots on goal.
While O’Brien missed time due to an undisclosed injury, Dowd recently returned from missing time due to an illness. Like O’Brien, Dowd didn’t score, but his impact was also felt. His ability to kill penalties has been a major asset to his team. Though his offense has cooled off after a hot first three months of the season, Dowd’s defensive awareness makes him an impact player game in and game out.
On the other end of the spectrum, Nick Ebert has struggled in his rookie season. Finding himself near the bottom of the depth chart, the Guelph Storm alum finds himself rotating in and out of the lineup. While Kevin Raine has shown he can take a regular shift as a forward, Ebert has not, limiting himself to playing in only 28 games this season. Some players, such as Colin Miller last year, struggle to put together a complete game, but show flashes of their potential. Unfortunately, Ebert has failed to follow in the footsteps of Miller, struggling to make an impact in the games he does play in.
With the constant roster shuffling most AHL teams go through, it can be hard for players to find ice time with consistent line-mates. This season, O’Neill has played both wings and been centered by the likes of Nick Shore, Weal, and now Mike Richards. Wherever he plays, and in whatever role, O’Neill thrives. As a player who isn’t blessed with the size of someone like Justin Auger, O’Neill might get looked over by some, but the feisty forward has shown time and time again that he is worthy of his shot in the NHL.
“I’ve played with a good center pretty much every game for a year-and-a-half, but playing with Mike Richards, you just learn so much. He’s just a special player. I grew up in Philly, so I grew up watching him. It’s pretty cool for me,” O’Neill said of his new center. “You just soak in as much as you can. He does a lot of little things that you wouldn’t even think of.”
Veteran defenseman Jeff Schultz was unable to play due to an injury he sustained recently. The injury is not serious, nor is he expected to miss an extended amount of time.
The Monarchs return to action on Friday to take on the Springfield Falcons at home.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Saturday were as follows:
Brian O’Neill – Mike Richards – Sean Backman
David Van der Gulik – Jordan Weal – Zach O’Brien
Michael Mersch – Andrew Crescenzi – Justin Auger
Josh Gratton – Nic Dowd – Scott Sabourin
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Kevin Gravel – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Nick Ebert
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