Monarchs win, charge into playoffs
MANCHESTER — On “Fan Appreciation Day,” the Manchester Monarchs gave their fans an extra gift: more hockey.
With a 4-2 win over the St. John's IceCaps in front of 7,808 fans at Verizon Wireless Arena Sunday, the Monarchs (39-32-5, 83 points) locked up the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and will begin the AHL playoffs Friday at No. 1 Norfolk (55-18-1-2).
Game 2 will be Saturday in Norfolk and the best-of-five series will then shift to Manchester for Game 3 Wednesday, April 25. Games 4 and 5 (if needed) would both be in Manchester on Friday, April 17 and Saturday, April 28.
Heading into the weekend, the Monarchs had three games remaining and knew that only three wins would guarantee a playoff spot. Manchester got the job done with wins over Connecticut, Hershey and St. John's, all three teams heading to the playoffs themselves.
“At the beginning, looking at the schedule I remember guys just saying ‘I hope it doesn't come down to the last three games' because it didn't look good on paper,” said Monarchs captain Marc-Andre Cliche. “Winning all three like this, it couldn't feel any better.”
Manchester scored three first-period goals to set the tone Sunday and then held off a late St. John's comeback bid.
“I think the first period was typical of the whole weekend,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “Our guys had a great focus as a group and we had things to prove and we were able to get the job done.”
The first-period barrage began at 6:15 when Andy Andreoff scored his first professional goal to put Manchester on top 1-0. Defenseman Jake Muzzin fired a shot on net from the high left side that Andreoff tipped past Eddie Pasquale at the left post.
Less than three minutes later it was 2-0 as Rich Clune, who was immortalized in bobblehead form for the first 2,000 fans to take home, fought his way to the net and got a shot on goal as he was sprawling to the ice. The shot was stopped but not covered and Cliche crashed the net to poke the loose puck in.
Manchester went up 3-0 at 13:37 on a power-play goal from defenseman Patrick Mullen. Blue line partner Thomas Hickey drilled a slap shot on net from the high point that Pasquale kicked out, but Mullen had drifted into the low slot and sent the rebound chance into the net.
Monarchs goalie Martin Jones (32 saves) helped out early on, as well, playing a strong first period to help make the 3-0 lead stand up, including making a blocker save on Spencer Machacek that boosted the bench.
“(Jones) was awesome,” said Monarchs defenseman Andrew Campbell. “That looked like it was going in low blocker (side) and he got his blocker on it, which was huge. It really lifted up the bench and I think we scored right after it, too, so it was a momentum-changer.”
After a scoreless second period, St. John's (43-25-8, 94) began to press in the third and pulled within two goals at 9:20. The IceCaps broke through on Jones during a power play when Machacek's shot from the low right circle was tipped in by Patrice Cormier.
St. John's turned up the pressure, but could pull no closer and the Monarchs were able to push the lead back three with a power-play goal at 17:39. Mullen's shot from the high slot was tipped in by Brandon Kozun from the doorstep to make it 4-2.
Manchester closed it out from there, clinching the playoff berth and drawing a standing ovation from the crowd.
“We were in a situation (coming into the weekend) where we had to win all three games. Our destiny was in our hands and that's how you like it,” said Monarchs forward David Meckler. “It was life-or-death every game, every shift. We were able to put something special together to build some momentum and fly into the playoffs and hopefully keep it going.”
MANCHESTER entered Sunday's game with several different playoff scenarios waiting to play out. The Monarchs could have finished in seventh place in the conference and would have had to face No. 2 St. John's. If that had been the case, the IceCaps had already decided to choose to play Game 1 and 2 in Manchester and the final three back home in Newfoundland.
The Monarchs could also have lost Sunday and still made it in if Portland lost at Providence (which it did, 3-2). A Monarchs loss coupled with either an overtime game or Portland win would have left Manchester out of the playoffs altogether.
In facing Norfolk, the Monarchs are tasked with the hottest team not only of the season, but ever. The Admirals' 28-game winning streak is the longest in AHL history. The previous record was 17 games, set by Philadelphia in 2004-05.
“We know that that's going to be a team that's had great success from start to finish,” Morris said. “They've pretty much steamrolled right through the season.”
SEVERAL Monarchs were presented awards prior to the game as part of the regular-season finale festivities. The Ace Bailey MVP (chosen by Monarchs players and coaches) went to Cliche. The Mark Bavis Award for Unsung Hero (chosen by the player) went to Campbell.
The Monarchs Community Service Award (chosen by the Monarchs Care Foundation) was shared by Campbell and Hickey. The Union Leader Fan Favorite Award (chosen by the fans) went to Justin Azevedo, who also won the Booster Club Player of the year Award (chosen by the booster club).
The Monarchs players also presented the “Shirts off our Backs” raffle winners with their game-worn jerseys following the contest.