Ian Clark's On Hockey: Road trip to test Monarchs' mettle
It was a strong weekend in Monarchs Country, but with just eight games remaining and the playoff race incredibly tight, there's little room for error.
Manchester plays at Portland tonight at 6:30. The Monarchs beat Portland, 5-0, Saturday and Worcester, 5-1, Sunday and are 35-30-3 for 73 points and seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
Portland is in 11th place at 30-29-8 for 68 points, just three behind Syracuse in the eighth and final playoff spot. Overall, the teams in sixth through 14th are separated by just eight points.
'It's a hard place to play and the teams aren't separated by much,' said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. 'It will be a real good test for us and everybody's fighting for points at this stage of the season. There's no question it will be a fun game.'
Manchester has won four of its last five games to strengthen its playoff hold. Thanks to a 2-5-3 span for Bridgeport, the Monarchs are now only two points out of sixth place, though the Sound Tigers have two games in hand. Manchester plays at Bridgeport Sunday in a huge game.
The Monarchs' strong play as of late comes down to finally getting enough healthy bodies on the ice every night.
Players ending their junior and college seasons could also be added soon, tops among them highly touted prospects Tyler Toffoli and Jordan Weal, each of whom had brief stints in Manchester last season and should get extended looks this year.
'We're real fortunate right now that everybody is healthy and we've got a couple guys waiting in the wings,' Morris said. 'And in a couple weeks, we'll probably have a couple more guys that are fresh off of junior playoffs and perhaps college guys. It's nice to be healthy.'
The good health has meant Morris has been able to roll four lines and trust everyone on the ice. Contributions have come from all over the lineup as all four lines have been strong, but one in particular has stood out.
Stefan Legein and Trent Hunter, centered by AHL Player of the Week Justin Azevedo, have been on fire as of late. Over the past seven games the trio has combined for 14 goals and 10 assists.
'They're having fun. You can tell,' Morris said. 'I think a big part of that equation is just knowing that Trent Hunter brings that veteran leadership. I think he calms those guys down, but I also think he keeps them honest. He says all the right things and he's been around hockey a long time.'
Over that span, Hunter has two goals and three assists. He sets a tone with his hustle and physical play and then gets the puck to the speedsters.
'I think Azzy and Lege, the three of us have jelled pretty well together. They're playing unbelievable hockey right now,' Hunter said. 'Everything that's on their stick goes to the back of the net. It's fun to watch and fun to be a part of.'
Azevedo has been the big gun and is on pace for AHL Player of the Month honors with nine goals and four assists in the past seven games. He scored four goals in a win at Portland two weeks ago and hasn't slowed down.
'It's pretty much Azzy, everyone is hopping on his back right now,' said Legein, who has 3-3-6 of his own over the past seven. 'He's got something going for him now and hopefully, he doesn't change it. We've been playing good. We move the puck well and get open for each other.'
Following the trip to Portland, Manchester plays another big game in the standings Saturday when it visits 13th-place Worcester (28-26-11 for 67). The Monarchs are on the road for six straight starting tonight and won't be home until the final weekend of the season, April 14-15.
Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.