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December 25. 2012 8:23PM

Ian Clark's On Hockey: 'The fur will be flying' tonight

THIS SEASON in the American Hockey League's Atlantic Division (where the Manchester Monarchs dwell) has been, in a word, crazy.

Of the five teams, Portland, Providence, St. John's, Worcester and Manchester (the latter two faceoff tonight at 7at Verizon Wireless Arena), nearly every team has been in first place at one time or another this season. But nearly every one of them has been in last place as well.

"It's crazy," said Monarchs defenseman Thomas Hickey. "It's almost at the point that you can scrap your other games and just play your division games. If you win all those, you're fine because it's so tight. It changes every day. The team that's in last place can put together three of four games and be in first and vice versa."

Which is exactly what has happened several times. The Monarchs were in first just a few weeks ago. But a rough patch dropped them to last. Manchester has since jumped back up to fourth place at 13-12-4 for 30 points.

Portland won six games in a row to climb into first. From the Pirates to last place St. John's, the difference in the standings is a mere five points. The Midwest Division has the same spread top to bottom, but the other four divisions have between 11 and 14 points separating first from last.

"If you've got a hot goalie or you've got a line that's really on fire, it can make a huge difference," said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. "You can't dwell on it for too long. It's a long season and everyone is going to have their high points and their low points. It's been that way every year I've been in this league."

The NHL lockout has raised the bar in the AHL overall as talented players who would be skating at the next level are playing in minor league rinks.

"With the lockout, there's a lot of good players here right now on every team," said Monarchs goalie Peter Mannino. "I think that just shows you the depth in the division. It speaks for itself. A team's going to go on a run and get hot and each team does that. It's exciting to be in the American League."

Pirates coach Ray Edwards sees the league as a whole as much improved.

"It's not just the division, it's the whole league. Every team is good," Edwards said. "If you're not playing well, they'll beat you. If you're not ready to play, you'll lose. It's that simple."

The end result is likely to be a playoff race unlike anything seen in recent years, with a potential for all five Atlantic teams mathematically alive deep into the season.

Tonight's game between the Monarchs and Sharks is the first of three meetings in six days between the teams. Manchester comes in off a 5-3 win over Portland with hopes of putting together some wins.

"We got the two points and that's a positive step and now we've got to build on it," Mannino said. "We can't be going out and losing a couple games. We've got to get a streak going."

Monarchs/Sharks games have been intense over the past few years and this season has been no different. Morris summed up tonight's expectations succinctly:

"The fur will be flying."


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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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