After splitting back-to-back home games against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Manchester Monarchs faced off against the Hartford Wolf Pack for the third time this season, as they attempted to wrap up their weekend with four of a possible six points. Lead by three assists from Michael Mersch and two goals from Sean Backman, the Monarchs edged out the Wolf Pack by a final score of 5-3.
Sunday’s game started out on a sour note, as the Wolf Pack scored an early goal off of the stick of Dylan McIlrath. After McIlrath’s defensive partner, Chris Summers, fed him a short pass and rolled off, the former first round pick threw a hard wrist shot on net that beat goalie JF Berube on his blocker side.
Halfway through the opening 20 minutes, Andrew Bodnarchuk drew the game even at one. Collecting a pass from the point down low, Mersch paused, took a step towards the neutral zone, and found Bodnarchuk pinching from the point. The defenseman one-timed Mersch’s pass past Jeff Malcolm, giving the top ranked power play in the AHL another goal.
Early in the second period, Backman netted one of two goals on the day. When Mersch sent a pass from the left end of the red line, Backman entered the offensive zone with speed. Gaining a step on the defender, Backman sniped a shot to the top of the net, just inside the far post.
Nearly 10 minutes through period two, Hartford took advantage of the Monarchs’ mistakes. Failing to score on an extended two-man advantage, the team made a poor line change, allowing Marek Hrivik to spring Chris Bourque in on a breakaway. Bourque, with his Hall of Fame father Ray in the stands, picked the corner of the net for his 22nd goal of the year.
“That was a bad change by us – that was a horrible change by us! You get a power play, and you don’t get it deep enough, then everybody just starts coming off the ice. You can call it coming off the ice lazy, or just call it not thinking. Wrong guy to have shooting the puck. Holy smokes. You see him coming in…that’s a tough one,” said head coach Mike Stothers on the goal.
Minutes later, Backman once again put his team in the lead with another perfectly placed shot. Collecting the puck behind the net, Backman skated out, paused while looking for the play to develop, and then opted to shoot, once again finding the top of the net open.
The Monarchs would find their first two goal lead of the game early in the third on a ticky-tack play. When Ryan Horvat fanned on a shot in the slot, the puck slid up to Colin Miller on the right point. Miller’s shot attempt was blocked by a Wolf Pack forward, redirecting the puck to the far post, where Justin Auger tapped the puck into the net.
Hartford would find a quick response, making it a 4-3 game just over a minute later. With Auger now in the box, the visitors moved the puck from low to high, where Mat Bodie let a slap shot go, hitting Berube and finding the back of the net.
In the closing minute of the game, the Monarchs would add an insurance tally. Winning the battle for the puck at his defensive blue line, Brian O’Neill forced the puck out of his zone and gave up a shot at the empty net, allowing Zach O’Brien to score an easy shorthanded goal.
While he’s had his struggles on the year, Mersch has been much better after the halfway point of the season. Mersch had the primary assists on three goals, and was involved offensively all night. Most rookies will struggle as they adjust to new leagues and improved levels of play, but there have been clear signs of improvement in Mersch’s game.
“Everything’s always that much better when you get points, but there’s a lot of other things you can do to help the team out that, maybe, media and other people don’t recognize that aren’t on the team or in the locker room. You just chip in the way you can on each different night. Especially being my first year, I just want to help this team win games. Tonight was the points, so [that] was great,” commented Mersch on his play.
With a goal and an assist, Andrew Bodnarchuk has continued to play well of late too. Last season, he was one half of one of the AHL’s best defensive pairings with Vincent LoVerde. Slowly but surely, his play in both ends of the ice has gotten back to the level he was at last year. Furthermore, both blue liners act as leaders on a very young team.
“I really liked my game. I was feeling the puck well, and seeing the ice well. [Vincent LoVerde] was working well with me,” Bodnarchuk said. “I don’t really base my game off my production, but whenever you get a couple points, it’s nice.”
Missing Sunday’s game with an injury was defenseman Derek Forbort. He joins David Van der Gulik and Josh Gratton as players dealing with health issues for the team. In need of bodies before flying to St. John’s for three games, the team recalled Max Kitsyn from Ontario of the ECHL.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Sunday were as follows:
Zach O’Brien – Jordan Weal – Brian O’Neill
Michael Mersch – Mike Richards – Sean Backman
Ryan Horvat – Nic Dowd – Justin Auger
Paul Bissonnette – Andrew Crescenzi – Scott Sabourin
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Kevin Gravel – Nick Ebert
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