While Thursday was the first night of the AHL playoffs in Manchester, not much was different in the results for the Manchester Monarchs. In the regular season, the Monarchs beat the Portland Pirates nine times through 12 meetings. Opening the playoff series in Verizon Wireless Arena, the Monarchs continued their dominance over their division rivals, taking game one by a score of 5-2.
As talked about on our playoff preview podcast, the Monarchs bread and butter is scoring early in games and playing from the lead. Jordan Weal made sure that trend continued, finding the back of the net just over two minutes into play. Skating up the ice, Weal received a pass from Sean Backman as he entered the offensive zone and fired a shot from the right circle, going off the far post and in.
Shortly after, Henrik Samuelsson continued his hot streak, by scoring his fifth goal in the last four games. After a zone entry on the power play, a Portland player lost the puck, allowing it to slowly dribble into the slot. Derek Forbort made a poor defensive play, playing the puck instead of the body, missing, and allowing Brendan Shinnimin to find Samuelsson unattended as he drove towards the far side of the net.
Midway through the first, Brian O’Neill put the Monarchs ahead once again. After sustained pressure in the offensive zone, the puck kicked out to the point, where Andrew Bodnarchuk’s slap shot hit a body in front of the net, allowing the puck to bounce to a soft spot in the Pirates’ defense for O’Neill to bury. Michael Mersch was in front of the net screening goalie Mike McKenna and was awarded an assist on the play.
At 11:27 of the second, another goal put the hometown team up by two, as Weal netted his second of the night, this time on the power play. After winning a faceoff in the attacking zone, Vincent LoVerde put a wrist shot towards the net, which was redirected in the high slot by Weal.
In the closing minutes of the period, O’Neill jumped on the two-goal train, similar to his first goal of the game. Another point shot blocked in front of the net saw the puck drop to McKenna’s right, where O’Neill beat a Pirates defender to the loose puck and backhanded one to the back of the net.
Down by three and on the man advantage, the Pirates pulled their goalie for a six-on-four advantage late in regulation. A blocked shot in front of goalie JF Berube redirected towards the corner, where captain Vincent LoVerde collected the puck and shot it 190 feet into the empty net, for a shorthanded goal.
With under a minute to play, the Pirates would score on the same power play in which LoVerde added his tally, making it a 5-2 affair. The story of redirected shots continued, as an initial shot hit a body and bounced onto the stick of Jordan Szwarz, who buried it into the back of the net.
Despite a large amount of goals, there was a curiously low amount of shots, as the Monarchs out-shot Portland 23-16. There were clear jitters from both teams starting the game, but neither team settled into playing their best hockey at any point.
While shot totals were low, there was no lack of physical play, as both teams played a rough and tumble game, filled with forays after every whistle. As division rivals, the two teams do not like each other, and it showed on Thursday. Expect the rough stuff to ramp up as the series presses on.
In goal, Berube looked a little shaky early on, but settled in nicely as the game progressed. Though he only made 14 saves, plenty were on grade-A scoring chances, allowing Berube to flash his best asset, an incredibly fast glove hand.
At the other end, McKenna struggled mightily, allowing four goals on 14 shots. Both of O’Neill’s goals were likely stoppable shots for McKenna. Don’t be surprised if Louis Domingue finds himself starting in game two, or at some point in this series.
Thursday looked to be a statement game for Weal. After being shafted on his shot at playing his first NHL game in the Kings’ last regular season game, Weal seemed determined to put on a show, as nearly every member of the Kings’ front office, scouts included, were in Manchester for the playoff opener. What Weal did was nothing short of dominating from puck drop to final buzzer. His ability to create offense and control the pace of the game were on full display, as he seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted on the ice.
Last year, Weal struggled in the first two games of the Monarchs’ series versus Norfolk, which the team ended up losing in four games. When his team didn’t play well the first two games, Weal played his best game of the series, adding two assists in the third contest. Weal once again on Thursday showed that he is a big game player, excelling when all the eyes were on him, and the stakes were amplified.
“Oh, for sure. It’s always fun when you get to this time of the year. You can’t change much. You’ve got to play it like you’ve played it all year – it’s just going to be a bit more physical, so that means guys are going to be running around a little bit more, and things are going to be more open,” said Weal on his play on bigger stages.
While the combo of Weal and O’Neill had a tremendous night up front, it was a familiar pairing that played lights out hockey on the back end. The ever consistent pairing of Bodnarchuk and LoVerde played a spectacular game on the blue line for coach Mike Stothers. Their ability to get the puck out of their zone quickly was key to their success, and helped lead to big nights offensively for them, as Bodnarchuk recorded an assist, while LoVerde added two assists to his empty netter.
“I thought I played pretty well. I though Bods helped me out quite a bit, going back for pucks. He’s kind of my eyes back there,” LoVerde commented.
To no surprise, there seems to be a real sense surrounding the team that the Monarchs’ are poised to possibly do something special in the post season. Speaking to several player, the emphasis was put on having a great team last season, with every player having another year of experience, and then mixing in several key, talented rookies. Though we are only one game into the playoffs, it shouldn’t come as a shock if the Monarchs aren’t done playing hockey for another month-and-a-half to two months.
Missing game one, Jeff Schultz has been dealing with an undisclosed injury. It is believed that the veteran is close to returning, but no timetable is set in stone. When he returns, he will likely slot in next to longtime partner Colin Miller, with Kevin Gravel sliding down to the third pair with Derek Forbort, as Kevin Raine finds his way out of the lineup. Although the Monarchs’ defense played well on Thursday, Schultz will be a big boost, as his defensive game seems to help Miller play his best hockey, on top of Raine struggling with turnovers and poor decisions in the series opener.
In other injury news, David Van der Gulik, who was missed plenty of time late in the season, left the game early. If he cannot play on Saturday, Stothers did not indicate a replacement, but when asked, said that Adrian Kempe may be the guy to draw in into his spot.
A healthy scratch on Thursday, Scott Sabourin sat out of the team’s first playoff game. After a second straight disappointing season, it is time to begin questioning the forward’s future with the organization, as he hasn’t made much progress in his game. To his credit, Sabourin has been described as a hard worker with a great attitude. Unfortunately, those two things do not automatically make you a good hockey player.
Returning to Manchester, Nick Shore needs to knock some of the rust off of his game after dealing with a sickness the team thought was mono and having not played hockey in a few weeks. If he finds his game again, he will likely be a leading scorer on an already powerful offense.
On the Portland side, three rookies were the best players for their team. Samuelsson, Christian Dvorak, and Laurent Dauphin all played well, with the first two being the biggest threats offensively all night. Keep your eyes on them as this series progresses.
The Monarchs now lead the series 1-0, going into game two on Saturday night. The teams will then quickly turn around and play in Portland on Sunday evening for game three. Games four and five, if necessary, would be on the following Thursday and Saturday.
Line combinations and defensive pairings on Thursday were as follows:
Michael Mersch – Nick Shore – Brian O’Neill
Zach O’Brien – Jordan Weal – Sean Backman
David Van der Gulik – Nic Dowd – Justin Auger
Josh Gratton – Andrew Crescenzi – Paul Bissonnette
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Kevin Gravel – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Kevin Raine
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