With just 24 games remaining in the regular season, the Manchester Monarchs have hit the stretch run toward the playoffs.
First-place Manchester (31-14-7) will host Atlantic Division rival Worcester (23-19-4) tonight at 7 p.m. at Verizon Wireless Arena, visit Hartford Saturday night and then close the weekend on Sunday with a 3 p.m. visit from second-place St. John's (28-18-3).
The Monarchs enjoyed four days off during the AHL all-star break. And even though it came mid-week and meant a disruption to the practice schedule, it was still a welcome bit of rest.
"Breaks are not hard to handle," said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. "We really were looking forward to a little time away and it will give everyone a chance to recharge their batteries and prepare for the final push coming into the last quarter of the season."
The Monarchs have an expanded roster thanks to some players being sent down from Los Angeles during the Olympic break. Goalie Martin Jones and forwards Tyler Toffoli and Colin Fraser (a veteran of 358 NHL games) are all in Manchester.
The Monarchs will be tested not only by the opposition, but by continued roster fluctuations.
"It's going to be another challenging weekend and I dare say that from this point forward, it's going to be a huge challenge for us to keep pace with what we've done to date just looking at the potential for guys going back to L.A.," Morris said. "But it will be an opportunity for other guys to take advantage of that ice time."
Manchester isn't the only team with extra help. Worcester has new faces in Chad Rau (acquired in a trade with Minnesota) and John McCarthy (sent down from San Jose). Worcester has played better as of late, earning points in six of its last 10 games.
"The Worcester team has made some moves and no doubt they will have some guys back from the (San Jose) Sharks, so I will expect them to be a little bit more polished," Morris said. "If you look at the trend of their games lately, they're a vastly improved team than we saw in the early going."
Hartford is in last place in the Northeast Division, but has gone 6-4-0 in its last 10. And Sunday's opponents from St. John's have won six of nine games against Manchester this season.
"Hartford made some transactions and they've added some people ... so I expect they'll be a little more explosive," Morris said. "And then St. John's has been a real tough opponent for us, both in their place and here in ours, too."
Sunday's game with the IceCaps begins a four-game homestand for the Monarchs that continues next weekend with visits from Springfield, Portland and Worcester.