The Manchester Monarchs were supposed to be playing deep into the spring.
After finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference (48-19-9) during an impressive regular season, the Monarchs ran into some bumps in the road that bounced them right out of the AHL playoffs.
The eighth-seeded Norfolk Admirals will move on to round two and not the No. 1 Monarchs. Norfolk won the best-of-five series, 3-1, with three straight wins.
It's a bitter pill to swallow for the team after such a promising season.
"I think that's the biggest disappointment," said Monarchs director of hockey operations Hubie McDonough. "When you finish eighth and you lose to the first- place team, that's what's supposed to happen. To get upset by the eighth-place team, even though every team is close, it adds to the disappoinment."
Let's get this out of the way early: Head coach Mark Morris' job is not in any danger after the early exit. If anything, the remarkable job Morris and his staff did all season should be commended.
The Monarchs roster was among the youngest in the league. Top scorers Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson spent most of the season in Los Angeles and their linemate, Linden Vey, was up and down all year. And Manchester's brightest gem coming into the year, goalie Martin Jones, made such an impression in L.A. that the Kings traded Jonathan Quick's backup, Ben Scrivens, and elevated Jones to permanent backup in L.A.
That left Morris with a rookie goalie in J.F Berube and a roster heavy with untested youth sprinkled with a few veterans here and there.
"The job that they've done with a cast of characters that kept changing is impressive," McDonough said. "The players stepped up and did their job, starting with J.F. He was great and that was a big part of why we were able to end up where we did in the regular season."
As for losing to Norfolk, there should be no shame in that. Yes it was a No. 8 team taking down the No. 1, but the Admirals won 40 games during the regular season, just eight fewer than Manchester.
The Admirals also rode hot goalie John Gibson, fresh off making his NHL debut (a shutout, no less) with Anaheim.
And the Monarchs were without top goal-scorer Brian O'Neill, who suffered a severe leg injury in a fight at the end of the regular season.
Furthermore, factor in the wonky AHL mandate that states that the first round must play two games in arena A and then three in arena B (unless the teams are within 300 miles of one another). The Monarchs got stuck playing three in Norfolk because The Scope (Norfolk's rink) was not available last weekend.
"I think the loss of O'Neill hurt. Then we ran into a hot goaltender and a big, strong defensive team in Norfolk," McDonough said. "It's unfortunate the way it worked out with home ice. But we didn't do what we needed to do at home. We win two at home then maybe we could have struck one out down there. But trying to win two, that was going to be a tall order."
It's tough to say "wait for next season," but the Monarchs have a lot of exciting young players to keep an eye on.
Berube's rookie season was superb and with Quick and Jones entrenched in L.A., Berube comes in next season as the clear No. 1, ready to build on this year.
Forward Jordan Weal might be ready to play in the NHL next season. After leading the team with 23 goals and 47 assists and playing in all 76 games, Weal made a huge jump this year. Rookies Nick Shore (14-24-38), Zach O'Brien (10-19-29) and Scott Sabourin (12-14-26) had solid seasons as well. O'Neill (26-21-47, plus-31 rating) played so well he earned a two-year contract from the Kings.
And the defensive corps, led by captain Andrew Campbell and plus-minus monsters Andrew Bodnarchuk (plus-43) and Vinny LoVerde (plus-37) will be stout once again.
"The youth, that's the way our organization is. That's what we like is to have these young players playing. That's the part that bothers me is that (the young players) are not going to experience more of the playoffs now. It wasn't for lack of effort by any means," McDonough said. "The future is certainly bright. We can move forward and try and get back to where we want to be and win the conference and move on in the playoffs. "
Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is email@example.com.