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December 22. 2012 9:48PM

Ian Clark's On Hockey: Monarchs show improvement

If there is such a thing as losing the right way, the Manchester Monarchs can at least look on that bright side.

The Monarchs dropped a 5-2 decision to Connecticut Friday night and were scheduled to play Portland Saturday night before the Christmas break. Manchester has lost six of its last eight before Saturday, but the most recent games have seen solid effort and hustle from the players.

"When you lose and play well like this, in some ways it's moving in the right direction," said Monarchs captain Marc-Andre Cliche. "Compared to three weeks ago when we were just losing and getting dominated. I think we've got to get out of here with our heads up and stay positive."

Cliche's line played very well Friday night and the captain himself netted both Manchester goals. Cliche has been centering a line with veterans Rich Clune and Stefan Legion over the past two weekends and they are leading the way, but the Monarchs need more.

"The encouraging thing is that we're seeing progress," said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. "We saw some of the veterans stepping up. We need more of the veterans stepping up to help in the areas of defending and also burying the puck. It's not new to guys that have been in the league."

Even with the loss on Friday, the Monarchs played better than the score indicated. The effort and energy were there much like the early part of the season when the team opened with a 5-1 record.

"It's sports, right? Sometimes you play hard and you lose and sometimes you play brutal and you win," Clune said. "I think we're starting to play like we did at the beginning of the year where we skate and forecheck hard and are relentless on the puck. I think the guys maybe got run down a bit. The bodies are starting to build back up and we can play with that fast pace again."

One area where the Monarchs need to see improvement is in goal. For whatever reason, former all-star goaltender Martin Jones has struggled lately, losing a franchise record eight consecutive games.

Jones was pulled on Friday night after giving up the fourth goal in the game, a soft wrist shot from above the right circle. While Morris would not specifically point to Jones' play Friday, he did say that he did not like any of the goals that were allowed in the game.

Peter Mannino came on to close out the game and did not allow a goal (the fifth Whale goal was an empty netter). Mannino started Saturday's game against Portland as well.

But it was not just Jones who struggled. Veteran defensemen pairing Bryan Rodney and Andrew Bodnarchuk also had a rough night Friday, each finishing with a plus-minus rating of minus-2. Another veteran, Andrew Campbell, was a healthy scratch who was inserted back into the lineup Saturday for his steady blue line presence.

"I think we've got to work on conditioning for a few of our players that haven't seen a whole lot of ice and they got exposed," Morris said. "If you're going to win in this league you can ill afford to have as many breakdowns in critical times as we've seen over the last month and a half."

Closing games out has also been an issue for Manchester. Last Sunday against Springfield, the Monarchs held a 2-1 lead late in the game only to lose in a shootout. On Friday, Manchester came back to tie the game 2-2 in the second period but let Connecticut score a late goal in the same frame and the momentum never came back.

"So much of how you win is based on momentum," Morris said. "You've got to find a way to close teams out and come up big when you have to. Instead of finding ways to win we've been opening up the door and allowing teams to hang around."

All in all, the underlying theme is that the Monarchs are playing well in certain phases, but a team-wide, 60-minute effort is the ultimate goal.

"Bottom line is, you've got to find a way to outscore the opposition and outplay the guys that you're matched up against and we haven't done that with consistency," Morris said. "It's been a long time since we've put back-to-back games together. Finding the win column has been quite a struggle. You need everybody in every position doing their job."

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Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at iclark@unionleader.com.


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