The Manchester Monarchs will be hoping the Force is with them this weekend.
The AHL-leading Monarchs (40-17-8 for 88 points) will travel to Northeast Division-leading Springfield Saturday for a 7 p.m. game and then close the weekend with a 3 p.m. game Sunday at Verizon Wireless Arena against Hershey for mascot Max’s Star Wars-themed birthday bash.
The Falcons (38-18-6 for 82 points) have three games in hand on Manchester in the race for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Monarchs can’t do anything about those extra games, but the good news for Manchester is that of the five remaining weekends in the regular season, the Monarchs play just two games (and not three) in all but one of them.
“Having those games behind us gives us a bit of an advantage in that those games are in the bank. (Springfield) still has to play those games and they have the opportunity to catch us. But they still have to do it,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “That’s what makes this weekend so important for us to try and distance ourselves from the teams that are chasing us. We can only control our own destiny. We can’t worry about other teams are doing.”
Much like the Monarchs, the Falcons have been consistent all season long. Springfield has a balanced scoring attack and excellent goaltending from Mike McKenna (19-7-1, 2.25 goals against average, three shutouts).
“They’re an older team and well-constructed from the goal out all the way up and down their lineup. They have an experienced back end and they can throw four solid lines at you every game,” Morris said. “The success of the Columbus organization is reflected in the play of their minor league team and they’ve been a team to reckon with for the past two years. I think it will be a great challenge for us.”
Hershey will hit town Sunday looking to spoil Max’s party. The Bears are fighting for a playoff berth at 31-23-8, five points out of the postseason behind Providence. That makes them dangerous despite going 2-6-2 over their last 10.
“When playing a team like Hershey that’s building for the end of the season, you can’t take them lightly,” Morris said. “We don’t see them a whole lot, but Hershey teams traditionally are an organization that’s built to go the distance. They’ve got some guys that have been there over time and won the championship on numerous occasions. They are one of the premier organizations in the league.”
Manchester will be without key veteran Colin Fraser and checking line presence Steve Quailer, both of whom are injured and not expected back for a week or two.
“It’s important that our skill guys come to play and shore up their defensive parts of the game in the absence of Fraser and Quailer. Everybody has more responsibility and it’s an ideal time for individual growth to show you can handle the rigors of postseason play,” Morris said. “It starts now even before the playoffs.”