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December 18. 2011 7:15PM

Monarchs break for Christmas with 3-1 win

Monarchs goalie Jeff Zatkoff makes a save on Worcester’s Tony Lucia as Manchester’s Ray Kaunisto and Linden Vey (9) close in during the second period of their AHL game at Verizon Wireless Arena Sunday afternoon. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER — The Manchester Monarchs will enter the Christmas break on a positive note after a 3-1 win over Worcester in front of 3,802 fans at Verizon Wireless Arena Sunday afternoon.

The Monarchs (18-11-2, 38 points) moved back into first place in the Atlantic Division by one point over St. John’s. Manchester has won five straight over third-place Worcester (13-7-6, 32).

Dwight King and Brandon Kozun combined for a pair of goals and Linden Vey scored an insurance marker in the third while Monarchs goalie Jeff Zatkoff out-dueled veteran NHL netminder Antero Nittymaki.

“I thought we had a real workmanlike win today,” Monarchs head coach Mark Morris said. “As much as they threw at us, we were able to defend well and we turned some of their turnovers into goals and we had strong goaltending.”

Leading 2-1 in the third period, the Monarchs got a big goal from Vey at 8:47. Skating a two-on-one with the puck on his stick, Ray Kaunisto was patient, driving deep on the left side before hitting Vey on the right for a one-timer past Nittymaki.

The Sharks continued to press, pulling Nittymaki with 2:36 remaining for an extra attacker, but could not break through. Zatkoff made 40 saves in the game to improve to 9-3-1. Nittymaki made 25 stops on the other end in his second start in Worcester as part of a two-week conditioning stint down from San Jose.

“I was hoping he would play,” Zatkoff said. “It’s one of those things where it’s always a great experience to play against an NHL netminder. He’s someone I watched on TV when he was starting out with Philly. It gives a little added incentive because you want to beat him.”

Kozun gave Manchester a 1-0 lead at 2:01 of the first period, scoring his eighth of the season. King sent as pass down low from the left point and Kozun re-directed the puck from the slot to beat Nittymaki inside the right post.

From there it was time for the fisticuffs. Manchester’s Justin Johnson squared off with Jimmy Bonneau for a lengthy scrap that ended in a draw. Immediately off the faceoff following that fight, Monarchs newcomer Chris Cloud tangled with Sharks heavyweight Curt Gogol in a quick one.

It was par for the course between the two teams as tensions are always high when they meet.

“They play the same kind of hockey like us, they never give up and skate hard and when you play two competitive teams like this, things like that happen,” said Monarchs captain Marc-Andre Cliche. “We’ve got guys to back it up and they do too so we know it’s going to happen every game.”

Worcester tied the game at 1-1 at 7:23 of the first. Jack Combs took a shot from the goal line on the left side that Zatkoff stopped. The rebound returned to Combs’ tape and he banked the puck off Zatkoff’s skate and into the cage.

Manchester took a 2-1 lead with the only goal of the second period. King and Kozun reversed roles from the first goal, working a two-on-none give-and-go. King left a drop pass for Kozun, who quickly shipped the puck back to King on the right post for one-touch past Nittymaki.

“I mentioned that (Nittymaki) was an NHL goalie. I look at that as a challenge,” Morris said. “If you can score on an NHL goalie I think that speaks volumes. You throw that out to a goal-scorer and that’s something that’s motivational, I think.”

The Monarchs will practice through Wednesday before the players and coaches scatter all over the continent and beyond for Christmas. Manchester is back in action Monday at 7 p.m. when the Providence Bruins come to town.

“We go home and it’s good to head in on a win like this,” Cliche said. “You’ve got positive thoughts when you go home.”

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