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December 07. 2011 10:13PM

Ian Clark's On Hockey: Monarchs' Azevedo is headed in the right direction

Manchester Monarchs Justin Azevedo jumps from the bench vs. the Worcester Sharks during Sunday's game. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

FOR WHATEVER REASON, Justin Azevedo just wasn’t feeling it.

So the fourth-year center for the Manchester Monarchs took it on himself to have a sit-down with head coach Mark Morris. Since then, Azevedo has returned to the player the team was accustomed to in his first three seasons, when he scored 44 goals and 72 assists.

“I did go in and have a good meeting with (Morris),” Azevedo said. “Sitting down and talking with him really changed things in just how I approach situations. From that meeting I started to play the game that I know how to play.”

The 23-year-old from West Lorne, Ontario said his head wasn’t where it needed to be. But listening to Morris as well as veteran teammates like captain Marc-Andre Cliche, Rich Clune and Andrew “Soupy” Campbell was a big help in his turnaround.

“I think I started off a little slow. I don’t know what it was. Even in practice I just wasn’t feeling right. I think it was just a mindset,” Azevedo said. “I’m trying to block things out more and stick to the positives and learn from my mistakes and the negatives. I’m trying to listen to the guys who are giving me advice like coach and even guys on the team that I live with like Cliche and Cluner and Soupy. I think I’ve turned it around pretty good.”

Morris has seen the change in Azevedo, who has climbed to fourth on the team in scoring with five goals and eight assists for 13 points, just one behind the three players ahead of him.

“As of late, his game has really improved. I think his compete level has risen immensely and he’s starting to produce in the way we’re accustomed to,” Morris said. “We’ve paired him up with (rookie) Linden Vey and there seems to be good chemistry there as there was with Bud Holloway in years past. It’s great to see him start to hit stride now.”

To see Azevedo rise to the challenge should come as no surprise. He packs a lot of rugged play into his 5-foot-7 frame and his willingness to throw his body around (and even fight, as he did on Sunday when he tangled with Worcester’s Nathan Moon) has made him a fan favorite.

“Azzy’s not afraid of confrontation,” Morris said. “It’s part of his makeup and it’s what has made him into the hockey player and scorer that he is. That never-quit attitude and the way he plays like he’s got something to prove every night.”

Having something to prove is exactly the way Azevedo has had to approach the physical part of the game.

“I’ve had to deal with that my whole life,” Azevedo said. “My dad was one who really encouraged me (and told me) when you go into a situation unprepared is when you’re going to get hurt. Sometimes I’d rather go hit a bigger guy because I have nothing to lose.”

Azevedo’s output through his career has him ninth in Monarchs history in career points with 129. When he laces up the skates for Saturday’s Monarchs game at Springfield it will be his 200th career contest. Azevedo has carved a nice niche in the AHL but his goal remains to skate in Los Angeles with the parent club.

“This year I did have a good camp and I think they were happier with how I did and I stayed a little longer than previous years,” Azevedo said. “My exit meetings went well. They said I’ve got to come down here and play well defensively. I wouldn’t be jumping up there (to L.A.) to be a first-liner right away so I don’t want to be a defensive liability.”

For now, Azevedo will stay the course.

“Just keep working hard,” he said. “I’ve just got to continue playing hard and hopefully one day I’ll get that chance. Until then, I’m going to keep going.”

- - - - - - - - - -

The buzz this week in the NHL is the realignment of the league into four conferences that make more sense from geographical and travel standpoints.

For the Boston Bruins and their fans, the shakeup means that every single other NHL team will make at least one trip to TD Garden. That means fans will get to see the big-name players league-wide.

The new playoff format, where the top four teams in each conference fight it out to emerge into a Final Four of sorts, means old playoff rivalries will be renewed and reinvigorated (Bruins/Canadiens/Maple Leafs) while other rivalries (Eastern Conference Final foes Boston and Tampa Bay) will blossom.

The new system is not perfect. Teams in the Western tier have a tougher time making the playoffs since those two conferences will have eight teams where the Eastern counterparts have seven.

Also, it would be nice for the New York Rangers and Bruins to play more often than the twice a season that looms under the new system. But overall the changes are for the better.

Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is

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