It has been the story of the Manchester Monarchs season – every time the team needed a player to step up, someone was there, just waiting for an opportunity. Come playoff time though, everyone needs to step up, elevate their game, and contribute in different ways. That was exactly what head coach Mike Stothers got on Saturday night, as six Monarchs players contributed multiple points as the team beat the Portland Pirates 6-2, taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Wasting no time, the Monarchs jumped out to an early lead, scoring a mere 20 seconds into the game. Nick Shore went into the right offensive corner to retrieve a puck, and cycled it to Brian O’Neill, who skated behind the net and found Michael Mersch in front of the net for a tap-in goal.
Before the goal could even be announced, the Monarchs added another, scoring their second goal of the game 10 seconds after the first. Entering the offensive zone from the right side of the ice, Jordan Weal took a shot from the circle off the far post and in. Mike McKenna, who struggled mightily in game one of the series, was chased from the game 30 seconds after the opening puck dropped, being replaced by Louis Domingue.
In the closing minute of the period, Portland got on the board thanks to a Brendan Shinnimin goal. The puck was passed from low in the Monarchs’ zone, to Shinnimin at the point, whose shot looked to be redirected in front of the net, trickling through the legs of JF Berube.
Though the second period saw neither team score, there was no lack of action. Early in the period, Andrew Crescenzi delivered a vicious, dirty hit on Darian Dziurzynski and received a five minute major, and a game misconduct. Angry over the play, Portland responded by ramping up their physical play, laying it on the Monarchs. Despite heavy pressure all period by the Pirates, the Monarchs bend-but-don’t-break defense kept the score at 2-1 entering the third.
Once again, the Monarchs would open a period with a series of quick goals. On the man advantage, Sean Backman got the scoring spree started. The puck slowly made its way into the high slot, where Vincent LoVerde skated in from the point to meet the loose biscuit. Backman worked towards the net with his stick on the ice, ready for a redirection, when LoVerde placed a pass perfectly on Backman’s backhand, beating Domingue with the tip.
Next, O’Neill added his second point of the night and first goal, as he got into the scoring action. Walking in from high in the offensive zone after a short pass from Derek Forbort, the versatile winger took a slap shot just inside the post and in.
Seconds later, Nic Dowd joined the fun, taking a stretch pass from Forbort and entering the zone on a slight break. Using a power move to protect the puck, Dowd cut to his right in the slot and shot back to his left, scoring the team’s fifth goal of the game. Dowd’s goal was the team’s third in 39 seconds, setting a franchise record for fasted three playoff goals.
For the second game in a row, Portland responded by scoring a goal once trailing 5-1, cutting the Monarchs lead down to three. Philip Samuelsson, whose legendary father Ulf was in town after the New York Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their playoff series, point shot looked to hit something before finding the back of the net.
Mersch would restore the four goal lead late, as he added his second of the game with Domingue on the bench. Dowd beat three Pirates’ defenders for a loose puck in the right offensive corners and found Mersch in the slot, who put the puck into the empty net.
The Monarchs closed out the game by a final score of 6-2, taking a 2-0 series lead in the AHL’s Eastern Conference Quarter Finals. The team has a chance to close out the series Sunday night in Portland.
For the second straight night, Berube’s statline wasn’t great, but the goalie did more than enough to win. He made a few solid saves, though his team did a great job eliminating high quality chances.
“We’re right where we wanted to be. We wanted to get those two games at home, and it was huge to get that win,” said the goalie on picking up the first two games. “Now we’re going over there, and we want to get the job done right away. We don’t want to let them hang around too long. We know we can do good in that building, too.”
One of the strongest aspects of this Monarchs team has been the fact that the lineup is made of young, talented players, while still having a good group of veterans to lead the way. Players like LoVerde, O’Neill, and Jeff Schultz cannot only be measured by what they do on the ice, as their contributions in the locker room and on the bench are incalculable. Another part of that leadership group is Andrew Bodnarchuk, who has elevated his game come playoff time.
“I think going into the road building, we’re going to just have to play a smart road game. Portland’s always played really well in their arena. They come hard on the forecheck. I expect we’re going to have to weather a storm early, and if we can, maybe dictate our own pace,” Bodnarchuk explained on how the team will need to play to close the series out on Sunday. “But they’ve got a good group of guys, a feisty group of guys, so by no means do we expect them to lay down at all, so we’ll be expecting their best effort.”
While he hasn’t contributed yet offensively, Adrian Kempe’s composure has been tremendous for such a young player. The Pirates have gone after Kempe countless times, and the Swede has never responded or been suckered into a dumb penalty. His play remains calm and even-keeled all game.
It won’t show on the stat sheet, but Justin Auger was a monster for the Monarchs in the first two games of the series. His work along the boards and in front of the net have been lights out.
Dowd may be the third line center with Shore and Weal on the team, but he has done wonders to have his impact felt, namely by being a terrific penalty killer, playing a physical game, and being very reliable for Stothers.
Speaking of Shore, the talented center added three assists on the evening. After knocking a little rust off in game one, Shore was back in top form, which is a scary thing for a Portland team who now needs to win all three remaining games to win the series.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Saturday were as follows:
Michael Mersch – Nick Shore – Brian O’Neill
Zach O’Brien – Jordan Weal – Sean Backman
Adrian Kempe – Nic Dowd – Justin Auger
Ryan Horvat – Andrew Crescenzi – Paul Bissonnette
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Kevin Gravel
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