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April 19. 2012 11:32PM

Monarchs OK with role as underdogs

The Manchester Monarchs are major underdogs and that suits them just fine.

The eighth-seeded Monarchs (39-32-5) take on No. 1 Norfolk (55-18-3) tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in Virginia.

Norfolk shattered the previous AHL winning streak of 17 games by closing the regular season with 28 consecutive wins.

But as the Monarchs see it, that means all the pressure is on the Admirals.

“That’s exactly what I told our guys before we left for the trip,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “People have us slotted to be the underdogs and that’s OK with us.”

The players are taking to the role of David vs. this Norfolk Goliath as well.

“I’m excited. I love being the underdog,” said forward Richard Clune. “A lot of the guys are embracing that role. I think we’re going to be spoilers.”

The Monarchs may not hit the postseason with a 28-game winning streak, but they did play strong down the stretch.

Manchester won the three final games of the season to take control of a playoff spot rather than having to rely on help from other teams.

“It’s almost better that we’re entering like this with our backs to the wall and playing playoff hockey rather than maybe clinching five games ago and stumbling,” said defenseman Thomas Hickey. “It’s a good sign for us.”

The Admirals (affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning) boast a team with depth at all positions.

Norfolk had four scorers top the 60-point mark while Manchester had just one (Justin Azevedo) reach 50 points.

Much like Manchester with Jeff Zatkoff and Martin Jones, the Admirals relied heavily on two goalies.

Dustin Tokarski (32-11-9, 2.23 goals against average, five shutouts) was the top netminder with Jaroslav Janus (23-8-2, 2.36) backing him up ably.

As for Manchester’s net, Zatkoff will be between the pipes for Game 1. It’s his turn in the rotation.

“It’s a good opportunity for him. He’s got family down that way,” Morris said. “If he plays the way he did in Charlotte (last year) in front of family, we’ll be ecstatic.”

The Monarchs left late Tuesday night and got into the Norfolk area Wednesday morning just before noon. Getting down there early to get settled was important to the team.

The squad is also staying about 20 minutes outside of the city to isolate themselves and allow more time together.

“When we’re home, we don’t really hang out as much. Guys have girlfriends and all that or live in different places around Manchester,” Clune said. “It’s good to get on the road and bond. We didn’t have a lot of long road trips, but I think that one to St. John’s (in March) when we won both games really brought us all together.”

Because of the series’ quirky setup (Game 2 is Saturday night in Norfolk at 7:15 p.m. and Games 3-5 will be in Manchester starting Wednesday), the Monarchs know that stealing at least one game in Norfolk will be huge.

“That’s really big, especially the way we’re playing at home right now,” Clune said. “We love our barn and playing for our fans.”

Manchester is a young team and this will be the first taste of pro playoff hockey for several Monarchs. Playing with poise will be key.

“It’s an eye-opening experience for young guys,” Morris said. “They have to understand the urgency of playoff hockey.”

Smart hockey will win the day, and the games.

“You’ve got to manage your shifts, the puck and the clock to give yourself the best chance to win,” Morris said. “The teams that show that commitment are the ones that survive.”

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