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February 19. 2013 9:15PM

Ian Clark's On Hockey: Monarchs have a new kind of battle

INSTEAD of fighting for one of the top spots in the American Hockey League playoff race, the Manchester Monarchs find themselves battling just to stay in contention for a playoff spot at all.

The Monarchs will hit the road for games at Worcester, Bridgeport and Portland this weekend. Manchester sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference at 22-24-5 for 49 points, six points away from eighth place and the playoff line.

What happened to the team that projected to be a contender? "Keeping a consistent lineup and trying to balance our chemistry has been the biggest thing we've had to contend with," said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. "Injuries and having guys plucked off of waivers and the dynamics of the makeup of the team has been very unpredictable."

The end result has been an increased role for players who are not ready for certain situations and others being used away from their skill sets just to get bodies on special teams units.

"We continue to see guys thrust into roles that they are unfamiliar with and we're depending on guys that are gifted offensive players to do things like kill penalties and defend against other teams' top lines," Morris said. "A lot of them are first- and second-year players."

With four players who helped the Los Angeles Kings on their Stanley Cup run in Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Andrei Loktionov and Slava Yovnov, Manchester was expected to play like the 5-1 team that broke out of the gate before cooling off.

But those players did not produce to expectations and now King, Nolan and Voynov are in L.A. and Loktionov has been traded to New Jersey. With a full roster and some NHL experience, the results were still not there.

"We were hoping to really bank some points at that early stage. It was definitely a missed opportunity," Morris said. "Since their departure we've had plenty of other chances to make up ground and putting a full 60 minutes together continues to be something that we're striving to achieve. We're in the middle of February and we're teaching simple defensive concepts. If you're going to give up goals, then you need to score more."

Adding to the frustration was a lack of effort from players like Voynov, who often appeared to have minimal interest in the AHL and then moved up to the NHL after the lockout and has played well. In 36 AHL games, Voynov had seven goals and nine assists for 16 points and a minus-1 rating. With L.A. he has 2-4-6 through 13 games with a plus-6 rating.

"You would hope that any player would give their best every time they suit up no matter what league you're in," Morris said. "Anything less than your best is really hard for me to fathom."

Monarchs director of hockey operations Hubie McDonough said that the players don't concern him as much as the bottom line of winning hockey games.

"It doesn't matter who comes in, they're putting on a Monarchs jersey and you have to play the system," McDongough said. "We've got to score goals, we've got to defend, got to make saves and get some points. All the points are critical. It doesn't matter who is in the lineup."

The Monarchs also struggled in the goal, where they were projected to be strong as Martin Jones finally took the No. 1 job for himself. But Jones struggled through a stretch of 0-8-1 for a franchise record nine-game winless streak, though not all the problems were his own.

"We weren't producing for him in the early part of the season," Morris said. "The chemistry, the timing, the makeup of the team has been out of sorts at times and we'll continue to try and find the answers to make guys understand that execution and sticking to the system and attention to detail is what turns you into an NHL player."

Is Morris in jeopardy of losing his job due to this season? Not really. After developing more than a dozen players that were on the Stanley Cup winning team and a track record of winning hockey season after season in Manchester, Morris is secure.

This season has been a trying one due to the roster roller coaster. And the Monarchs roster remains in flux with captain Marc-Andre Cliche out long-term and Brian O'Neill out indefinitely after suffering an injury at Connecticut Sunday.

"We're running on bare bones, numbers-wise. I'm going to make calls this week because O'Neill was injured in Hartford," McDonough said. "Our injuries are mounting. NHL injuries are starting to accrue. It's going to be more challenging coming up."

The good news is that the season isn't lost. Manchester has 25 games remaining to turn things around.

"We'll continue to correct and try and improve in our effort to be a playoff team," Morris said. "We haven't done ourselves any favors by letting our focus wane for short periods of time and eliminating a lot of positive things that are happening in the game. It's a 60-minute game. You've got to be the better team over its entirety."

Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is iclark@unionleader.com.

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