In their final season in the AHL, the Manchester Monarchs sure are giving their fans plenty of drama. Their opening round series versus the Portland Pirates saw the team nearly blow a 2-0 series lead, as well as a 3-0 lead in the decisive Game 5. Now, after advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, their Game 1 matchup versus the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins went into triple overtime, as the team eventually won by a score of 4-3 .
As has been a key all year for the Monarchs, the team was able to get a crucial early goal, beating rookie sensation Matt Murray just 18 seconds after the opening puck drop. After a tremendous keep in at the right point by Kevin Gravel, the puck worked its way into the corner, where Sean Backman worked it to the back of the net. When the puck eventually made it to the front of the net, Nick Shore was ready and waiting, burying it from right in the slot, giving his team a 1-0 lead.
The Penguins, who clearly saw the trends of the Monarchs series versus Portland, scored minutes later from a simple point shot. When Kasperi Kapanen made a terrific pass from the left offensive corner to right point, Taylor Chorney quickly got the puck off his stick, beating a screened JF Berube top shelf.
Midway through the first, AHL MVP Brian O’Neill regained the lead for his team. Colin Miller’s cannon of a slap shot dropped right in front of Murray, where Weal slightly tapped it through the crease to the far post, where O’Neill buried into the gaping net.
While the Monarchs have struggled mightily allowing long shots, the other major problem faced in the opening round was allowing goals very late in the period. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton scored the two-for-one, as a point shot with 10 seconds left in the period found twine. With Jeff Schultz just assessed a penalty, the Penguins won the offensive zone draw, and a quick d-to-d pass set up Scott Wilson for a goal from the center of the point.
Allowing the late goal shifted all the momentum in the way of the visitors. Through nearly 12 minutes to start the second, the Monarchs had just one shot. Then, on their second shot of the middle frame, Colin Miller put his team ahead 3-2. Jordan Weal’s clean faceoff win went straight back to Miller, whose wrister was flubbed by Murray, and beat the goalie on a very stoppable shot.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton came out fighting in the third. A little after Murray came up with a huge stop on Michael Mersch’s terrific deke attempt, Conor Sheary found a way to tie the game. Working in the left offensive corner, the Monarchs defense allowed Sheary to walk out of the corner uncontested with the puck. No one picked up Sheary as he worked his way into the slot, and once there, his backhander tied the game at 3.
Starting the first overtime period, the Monarchs dominated the Penguins. The home team controlled the pace of play, and every puck that made its way deep into the Monarchs’ zone was worked out quickly. In fact, the first 10 minutes of overtime number one was some of the best team defense the team played all year. Each team traded glorious scoring opportunity each, as Zach O’Brien was stopped on a breakaway and Berube made several saves while scrambling to keep the puck out of his net. Adrian Kempe also had a chance to ice the game, but his redirection bid went wide of the empty net.
Mersch came up with another big scoring attempt in the second overtime period, but alas, Murray once again made the stop, as we proceeded on to a third period of extra time.
A big save by Berube got the remaining fans in Verizon Wireless Arena excited, and then moments later, the game was iced by O’Brien. Coming on the ice after a change, the winger took a cross-ice feed from David Van der Gulik, who was making his return from injury in the game, and slapped a puck past Murray, winning the game in triple overtime, 4-3.
Though none of the goals he let in were necessarily terrible, the troubling trend of point shots beating Berube has continued into this series. Berube must do a better job battling to see pucks, as far too often he is allowing very high screens to obscure his vision of the puck. While regulation was not his best play, Berube was easily the best Monarchs player in the overtime periods, coming up with huge save after huge save.
Since joining the Monarchs last season on a tryout contract, O’Brien has looked like a solid AHL player. In the later parts of this season though, his play has dipped. Though Wednesday was still not the best hockey he’s played, he was much more engaged in the game all night. As mentioned earlier, O’Brien had a tremendous scoring chance in the first overtime, and was involved in plenty of other scoring chances in the extra time.
“In overtime, you can’t sit back. That’s when you get in trouble. That’s what we talked about in the room. All the guys were staying positive mentally, and it ended up working out for us,” said O’Brien on the teams playing aggressive hockey through the overtime periods.
After last year, where the Monarchs faced the Norfolk Admirals and star goalie John Gibson, there might have been a slightest bit of worry of seeing a similar outcome, where a hot netminder can carry a team to victory. It was huge for the Monarchs to come out and show that Murray is human and that they can beat him, after they were shutout in the team’s last meeting of the regular season.
“Oh, for sure. He shut us out last game. Getting these couple of goals early was big for us, and having that good first period was a big first step,” said Weal on if scoring 4 on Murray was a confidence booster.
Wednesday’s game was the longest game in Monarchs history, at 104:13 play, and the game took just over four hours from start to finish. While long games will always be hard to recover from, the Monarchs and Penguins must play another game the next day, thanks to an absolutely brutally put together series schedule. The teams have three separate sets of back-to-back games, should all seven games be necessary.
“It’s playoff hockey. [You need to do] whatever you need to do to get ready. Guys have their own way of preparing. We know that this is the first game. Our goal isn’t to win one. Our goal is to go to the Calder Cup finals. It starts with this series now, and it starts with tomorrow. Guys just have to re-focus. We have a resilient bunch of guys. I’m looking forward to the game tomorrow,” captain LoVerde said on how to reboot for Thursday.
Line combinations and defensive pairings for Game 1 were as follows:
Michael Mersch – Jordan Weal – Brian O’Neill
Adrian Kempe – Nick Shore – Sean Backman
David Van der Gulik – Nic Dowd – Zach O’Brien
Josh Gratton – Andrew Crescenzi – Justin Auger
Andrew Bodnarchuk – Vincent LoVerde
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Kevin Gravel
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