After setting themselves up in a great position to succeed by finishing first overall in the AHL, the Manchester Monarchs don’t like to make things easy on themselves. Cruising to two easy victories in Games 1 and 2, the Monarchs lost in the last seconds of Game 3 and played some of their worst hockey of the year in Game 4. In the deciding Game 5, the Monarchs looked like they were once again going to blow away an early lead, but were able to squeak out a win thanks to two 3rd period goals.
Desperate for a good start, the Monarchs came out firing on all cylinders. Just under two minutes into play, Michael Mersch put his fourth goal of the postseason in the net. Winning a battle for the puck on the right boards, Sean Backman threw a shot on net, where Mersch was posted in front, burying the rebound.
Late in the first, the Monarchs would take advantage of a mistake by Portland goalie Louis Domingue, extending their lead to 2-0. When the netminder flubbed a pass behind his own net, Andrew Crescenzi swooped in and threw the puck into the slot, where Ryan Horvat simply shot it into the empty net. [Full video highlights are at the bottom of this post.]
To begin the second, Manchester would once again take advantage of a poor decision by a Pirates skater. Henrik Samuelsson was assessed a five-minute major for charging for a hit on Brian O’Neill, sending the Monarchs on an extended power play. After a brief trip to the locker room, O’Neill returned to the ice, where he took a cross-ice pass and put the puck towards the net. Jordan Weal found the loose puck and buried the rebound for a 3-0 advantage.
After not allowing Portland a shot for the first half of the second, it looked as if the Monarchs would coast to an easy victory. However, Portland would not go away without a fight, as Samuelsson would get his team on the board. Taking a pass in the slot, the talented forward would flub on a shot, but still find a way to beat goalie JF Berube on the power play.
Minutes later, Portland made the game even closer, with another goal on the man advantage. A give-and-go play saw Tyler Gaudet dish the puck down low, skate to the net, and bury the pass from in front of Berube.
As the clock wound down on the middle period, it looked as if the Monarchs would carry a 3-2 goal into intermission. That is until Brendan Shinnimin came screaming down the left wing and let go a slap shot that trickled 5-hole on Berube, scoring with 0.5 left on the clock.
Undoubtedly, head coach Mike Stothers had a vigorous speech to give in between periods, as he has given to his team the last few days at practice after losing games three and four. His team responded, opening the third with a quick goal once again. Michael Mersch took the puck from behind the net, walked out front, held, and sniped a shot short side to regain the lead.
Seconds later, Kings 2014 first round draft pick Adrian Kempe added his first professional goal, making it 5-3, as the hometown crowd erupted. Driving the net, Kempe took the feed from the right corner and one-timed it home.
The Monarchs were able to tighten up defensively and close out the game, winning the series 3-2 and advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. There, they will play the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and star goalie Matt Murray.
After a dominant season, especially versus Portland, the Monarchs seemed to struggle come playoff time. Shinnimin’s tying goal looked as if it was the beginning of the end for AHL hockey in Manchester. Initially ruled no goal, the referees went into the penalty box to review, eventually coming out and ruling it a good goal. The players on the Monarchs bench looked devastated, and it felt as though Portland won the game with that tying goal. However, the veterans in the room and coach Stothers did a terrific job of having the troops ready to battle during the last 20 minutes of play.
What a night and day difference it has been for Mersch on the season. After a tough start to the year, adjusting to the pro game, the former Wisconsin Badger has become a monster in front of the net. He will likely never be a highly skilled player, nor will he be an excellent skater, but his net-front presence is something the Kings could surely use in the future.
“I worked hard this summer. I came into camp willing to work hard. Came down to Manchester this year, with the idea that it’s a development league. We have a great development team. We have a great coaching staff here. You just stay the course. It’s a long season. You just work hard,” noted the 22-year-old forward. “We have a good group of rookies – we stay on the ice after practice and work on things. It’s just stuff like that you have to work on as a rookie. Whether it be someone else’s success or my success, it’s based off of each other and the team.”
Scoring his first pro goal was likely a huge confidence boost for Kempe. On Thursday in Portland, the Swede was nearly invisible all night; though to be fair, so was the entire team.
It would have been easy for Stothers to pull Berube after the third goal, but the coach indicated that it never crossed his mind. [ed note: Stothers had plenty to say after the game, click here to read his full comments on a myriad of Monarchs players.]
Though his troubling play continues, Berube tightened up his game in the third. Strangely, Berube has made huge saves in nearly every game of the series, but it has been the weaker shots beating him. Going forward, the goalie knows he must be better. “It just squeezed through. Bad goal. It could have been worse,” Berube commented on the third goal. “Guys battled hard in front of me – they did it all series. They deserved that series. I need to bounce back next series.
The Monarchs Eastern Conference Semifinal series starts this coming Wednesday. Click here for the full schedule.
Line combinations and defensive pairings for Game 5 were as follows:
Brian O’Neill – Jordan Weal – Justin Auger
Michael Mersch – Nick Shore – Sean Backman
Zach O’Brien – Nic Dowd – Adrian Kempe
Ryan Horvat – Andrew Crescenzi – Josh Gratton
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Kevin Gravel
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