When the AHL playoffs started, it might have been easy for some to pencil the Monarchs in the second round before the puck was dropped for Game 1. Not only had Manchester taken nine of 12 match-ups against Portland in the regular season, the Monarchs were also the top seed in the league, while Portland was ice cold entering the post-season. Thus, it was no real surprise when Manchester opened with a pair of blowout wins f their best-of-five series prior to heading up to Maine for Games 3 and 4. Wrapping up the series on the road seemed inevitable, yet after a dreadful performance on Thursday, things are now tied 2-2, with a decisive Game 5 set for Saturday evening back in Manchester.
As is known to happen in hockey, one team controlling the play and being unable to score can often lead to the other team lighting the lamp. Such was the case in the first period of Game 4, as the Monarchs didn’t have a stellar first period, but were the better of the two teams. Then, with under a minute to play in the opening stanza, Portland took a 1-0 lead. A pass from the right offensive corner went to the slot, where Francis Wathier, the overtime hero in Game 3, beat goalie JF Berube.
In the second period, a fortuitous bounce was foreshadowing of the type of night the Monarchs would have. A shot from the left point hit Colin Miller, as he attempted to box out his man in front of the net, bounced into the air, and over Berube to the back of the net. Miller being unable to gain an advantageous position effectively screened Berube the entire time the puck made its way towards the net. The goal was credited to Brandon Gormley.
Portland would extend their lead to three in the second, when Patrick McNeill scored his first of the playoffs. After a puck went low-to-high, McNeill found a soft spot in the slot, where he was able to position himself perfectly to bury the loose puck off the point shot.
After already playing a poor game, things got ugly in the third period. Just after killing off the remaining 39 seconds of a penalty from the end of the previous period, Wathier added his second of the game on a shot that should have never found the back of the net. Just outside the offensive blue line, Miller attempted to block a shot with his body, but could not control the puck when it dropped to the ice. This allowed Wathier to be behind him after stepping out of the box. From just inside the blueline, a slap shot beat Berube clean, making it a 4-0 game.
Late in regulation, talented Coyotes prospect Brendan Perlini showed flashes of his sky high potential, scoring his first pro goal. A cross-ice pass from fellow top prospect Laurent Dauphin gave Perlini room to work in the slot, where he took strides towards the net, and buried top shelf from in close. Minutes later, the buzzer sounded, and the Monarchs lost 5-0.
Undoubtedly, Berube had one of his worst outings we’ve seen from him all year. As stated previously, long range shots are beating the French Canadian far too often. Berube must battle more to see the puck, as this trend cannot continue if his team is to win the winner-take-all Game 5. However, blaming Berube solely for the loss is entirely unfair. Bottom line – no goalie can win a game when his team gives him zero goal support.
Alongside Berube, Miller had an equally rough outing. While the young blueliner is excellent offensively, his defensive game still needs work. Portland exploited this all night, targeting the side of the ice Miller was on, and often turning the former Soo Greyhound inside out. Miller has also had a few instances of forcing shots, a problem he faced last year.
The Monarchs biggest challenge is finding a way to put this game behind then. Yes, you played a poor game as a team. Yes, you allowed Portland back into the series. But at the same time, this team was dominant all season on home ice, and finished first in the AHL for a reason.
Saturday will determine once and for all the mentality of the Monarchs as a team. They could cower and play the same poor hockey they played in Games 3 and 4, or they can battle, grind, and muck it out, going to war with the Pirates to see who moves on and who goes home.
Manchester is in danger of going through what the San Jose Sharks went through last year, where you win the first games of the series, but fail to clinch the final game necessary to advance. As they leave New Hampshire for the West Coast, the team undoubtedly does not want to be further compared to the Sharks, who have constantly struggled come playoff time, despite strong regular season play. In the franchises’ AHL existence, the Monarchs have struggled time and time again, only advancing past the opening round twice.
While some could assume there was panic and anger in the Monarchs locker room between periods, a veteran of the team and leader in the room assured otherwise.
“I think we have a lot of guys that have been in situations like this before, so I think there was a sense of calm. We just didn’t get the results we wanted, and I think we have to regroup to come back from this. We’ll respond well Saturday,” said Brian O’Neill. “I think momentum is only in game. I don’t think there’s any carry over. Once Saturday starts, it’s a new day. We have the home ice advantage. It worked all year for us, so we’re going to take advantage of that.”
After being the starting goalie all year, Mike Stothers must now debate if Berube will start Game 5 for his team. Berube’s play tapered off as the year went on, and Thursday was far from the normal goalie Monarchs fans are accustomed to seeing. One thing Stothers was absolutely correct on was to not pull his netminder at any point. Doing so would likely hurt Berube’s confidence more than the loss itself, forcing the coaches hand into starting Patrik Bartosak come Saturday. Though, for anyone thinking Berube isn’t confident still, think again.
“That’s the best scenario for me – I know I can bounce back. Now I have the chance to bounce back, so there’s no better scenario for me,” Berube stated.
For long-time Monarchs fans, the story of this series may seem familiar. I’m reminded of a story told by the team’s legendary announcer Ken Cail, where the script is eerily similar to the current one. In the 2011 playoffs, the Monarchs took a three games-to-one lead over the Binghamton Senators. In Game 4, Manchester lit up goalie Barry Brust, scoring 6 goals on him, effectively chasing him from the series. In came Robin Lehner, who helped steer the Sens to a series victory in seven games.
Through the first two games of this year’s series, Mike McKenna was chased twice. Enter Louis Domingue, who has been stellar in net for the Pirates. With one game left in the series, we will find out if history truly does repeat itself.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Thursday were as follows:
Michael Mersch – Nick Shore – Brian O’Neill
Adrian Kempe – Jordan Weal – Sean Backman
Zach O’Brien – Nic Dowd – Justin Auger
Ryan Horvat – Andrew Crescenzi – Josh Gratton
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Kevin Gravel
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GAME 4 HIGHLIGHTS: