Allen Lessels' On Hockey: Trying to stay on a roll
The Manchester Monarchs needed to go on a late-season tear just to get into the American Hockey League playoffs.
They'll see if they can do some damage now that they're in.
The Monarchs open their best-of-five Eastern Conference series against the Springfield Falcons on Saturday night on the road. They play again in Massachusetts on Sunday at 4 and come to Manchester for games on Thursday night and, if necessary, Saturday night.
A Game 5, if needed, would be back in Springfield on Sunday afternoon, May 5.
"Our biggest challenge now is to try to steal one in their building," said forward Marc-Andre Cliche, who is in his sixth season as a Monarch and third as the team's captain.
The Falcons put up a franchise-best 45 wins, collected 99 points in the standings and won the Northeast Division race by a whopping 20 points.
The Monarchs won a season-high six straight games en route to clinching a playoff spot on Saturday night with a 3-1 victory at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. They lost 4-2 in Hershey on Sunday in a game that held no playoff bearing for them.
Manchester has had a good amount of success against the Falcons in the last five years. Not so much this season.
The Monarchs won two of the first three games of the season series, but Springfield has taken the last three, including a 2-0 decision the last time the teams met, in Springfield on March 20.
"We know they have an extremely quick team and they make a lot of quick plays," Cliche said. "And we know how tough it is to play in their building. It's a smaller rink and they play extremely well there."
The Monarchs must contend with high-scoring forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault in particular.
"He's one of the more creative forwards in the league," said Monarchs coach Mark Morris.
Audy-Marchessault had a hat trick against the Monarchs earlier in the season.
He, like Monarchs leading scorer Linden Vey, had 67 points in 74 games. They got to 67 the same way.
Vey had 22 goals and 45 assists and Audy-Marchessault 21 and 46.
"They have some guys with good numbers and they have a big defensive corps," Morris said.
The Monarchs this week in practice stressed keeping the area in front of goalie Martin Jones as clear as possible "We really emphasized the importance of winning battles in front of our own net and eliminating their sticks so we deny second and third shots," Morris said. "Boxing out and getting up on their sticks takes away second and third whacks at the puck."
The Monarch are counting on Jones, too.
He started 29 of 30 games leading into Sunday and led the way to the six-game winning streak. In his last three games, he has allowed two goals total.
"He's got his swagger back and I think that permeates the mindset of our team," Morris said. "We're becoming more predictable for him and he's made the stops when we've needed them."
Jones and the winning streak have the Monarchs, the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, in a good place going up against No. 2 Springfield, Cliche said.
"I think it makes it fun coming into the playoffs when you clinch like that at the end so you come in and you've got nothing to lose," he said. "Everyone knows on paper that Springfield's supposed to beat us. I think we can play loose and at the same time be confident, especially the way Jonesy's been playing at the end of the year. He's just been a brick wall."
THE MONARCHS had Tyler Toffoli, the AHL's Rookie of the Year, back last weekend and he helped them clinch the playoff spot. Then he left again. Toffoli played with the Kings in a 3-1 loss at Detroit on Wednesday. He replaced Dustin Brown, who was suspended for two games for an elbowing infraction on Tuesday night. The Kings play San Jose at home on Saturday night. It's not known when, or if, the Kings will return Toffoli to Manchester. . . . Toffoli is second in scoring and first in goals for the Monarchs at 28-23-51 in 58 games. . . . Springfield goalie Curtis McElhinney has a .923 save percentage, 2.32 goals-against average and record of 29-16-7.