Ian Clark's On Hockey: Injury bug starting to bite Monarchs
Manchester (7-6-1 for 15 points) has dropped three in a row and will play at Portland (6-6-2, 14) tonight at 7 in a rare Tuesday game heading into the two-day Thanksgiving break.
Already thin on defense with Andrew Campbell and David Kolomatis out with long-term upper body injuries, an ongoing (and as yet undiagnosed) issue with Jake Muzzin has further depleted the blue line.
"It's tough sledding right now," said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. "These are times when you have to really dig deep because of injuries mounting and trying to find continuity on the roster. It's been a big challenge for us over the last few weeks. The guys we lost are most of the defensive corps. We've had to make some adjustments."
The Monarchs are 1-4-0 in their last five and have dropped into second place in the Atlantic Division behind Worcester (7-6-2, 16). The entire division is packed tight, with only three points separating the Sharks from last-place Providence (6-7-1,13).
"We're hoping to find a little bit of momentum and start building back some of the ground that we've lost over the last few weeks," Morris said. "In this league, it doesn't take long for things to change for all teams. We're just trying to fight our way through this tough stretch."
The Monarchs have felt the sting of those defensive injuries on special teams. Kolomatis and Muzzin quarterback the power play from the point, sending shots on net to create rebound chances or scoring themselves. The power play is 0-for-20 in the last five games.
On the penalty kill, few D men in any league block as many shots as Campbell. Manchester has given up five power-play goals in the past 12 chances.
"Specialty teams comes down to your guys that are proficient at specific skills and it's hard to expect somebody who hasn't played in those roles to perform immediately," Morris said. "Those things take time. We were really relying on the power play in the early part (of the season) where we had big success. It's affected our goal scoring."
Over-thinking could also be an ailment.
"On the power play, I think we were too good at the beginning and we got too confident and now we're trying to make too many pretty plays," said captain Marc-Andre Cliche. "When we had Kolomatis in the lineup, he was just taking wristers from the blue line to get rebounds and that's how we were scoring on the PP. Now, we're waiting for that perfect play."
And on the penalty kill, better decision making is needed.
"I think we've got to work smarter and block more shots. We got to make better plays," Cliche said. "Sometimes we try to clear it and the smarter play is to get that little two- or three-foot pass to the guy in the middle and then it's straight out. We don't have enough poise down low."
Following the game at Portland, the Monarchs will return to action for a busy weekend of three games. Friday, Manchester will host Worcester (7 p.m.), then travel to Springfield Saturday (7 p.m.) and then host Portland Sunday at 3 p.m.
TONIGHT'S game will be the 300th career pro game for Cliche and Friday's will be his 300th as a Monarch in the AHL. Cliche played one game with the parent club Los Angeles Kings in 2010.
But the milestone is bittersweet. It means it's been a solid career for the sixth-year pro, but it also means the dream of an everyday NHL job has not yet come to fruition.
"It's good on paper, but it's not really what you aim for when you start in the American Hockey League," Cliche said. "You want to play as small an amount of games here as you can. But since I have been here, it has always been a great time."
Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.