AHL Weekly: Monarchs ascending the throne

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Manchester Monarchs reached the Calder Cup Playoffs for seven consecutive seasons before missing out for the first time last spring. One month into the 2009-10 campaign, buoyed by the AHL’s stingiest defense, the Monarchs have assumed a share of first place in the league standings.

Under fourth-year head coach Mark Morris, the Monarchs enter the new week at 9-2-1-0 for 19 points, tops in the Eastern Conference and tied with Rochester for most in the AHL. Manchester, which featured the AHL’s second-youngest opening-day roster at 22 years and 11 months, is off to its best 12-game start since the 2004-05 club shot out of the gate at 11-1-0-0. Strong defense and goaltending have keyed the Monarchs’ early success, as Manchester’s netminders have faced an average of 34.42 shots per game – third-most in the AHL – but have allowed a league-low average of 1.42 goals per contest.

The Monarchs swept a recent six-game homestand, outscoring their opponents by a 21-3 count and posting three shutouts. Jonathan Bernier (6-2-0, 1.49, .956), the 11th overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, ranks among the AHL’s top five in both goals-against average and save percentage and was named the Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month for October. Stablemate Jeff Zatkoff (3-1-0, 0.75, .978), a third-round pick in that same 2006 draft, leads the league in both categories as Monarchs opponents have been denied on 96.4 percent of their shots through 12 games.

Nineteen-year-old rookie Andrei Loktionov, the second-youngest player to skate in the AHL this season, has paced the Monarchs’ offense. A fifth-round draft pick by Los Angeles in 2008, Loktionov began his pro career with a hat trick at Albany on Oct. 3 and boasts team highs in goals (5), points (12), and plus/minus rating (+10). Third-year pro Scott Parse racked up 11 points (2-9-11) and a plus-8 mark before earning his first-ever NHL recall on Oct. 23, and he has contributed a goal and two assists in his first four games with the Kings.

Oscar Moller, a second-round draft choice in 2007, has put up nine points (4-5-9) and a league-leading three game-winning goals in the early going, while 2009 AHL All-Star Brandon Segal also has nine points (3-6-9). Former third-round draft pick Bud Holloway has six points (4-2-6) and a plus-7 mark through 10 games of his sophomore season, while Gabe Gauthier (1-4-5), rookie Corey Elkins (3-1-4) and second-year pro Justin Azevedo (1-3-4) have also made contributions up front.

Former second-round draft pick Viatcheslav Voynov, 19, leads all Monarchs defensemen with six points (3-3-6) in his second pro season, and Drew Bagnall shows four points (1-3-4) and a plus-5 rating thus far. Rookie blueliners Patrick Mullen and Thomas Hickey – drafted fourth overall in 2007 – and second-year rearguard Andrew Campbell join the youth movement on the blue line.

The Monarchs tangle with the two teams directly below them in the conference standings this weekend, visiting Worcester on Friday before hosting the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears on Saturday.

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400 FOR SOMMER … Worcester head coach Roy Sommer earned his 400th career AHL coaching victory on Sunday with the Sharks’ 4-1 win over Springfield at the DCU Center. Sommer, who shows a 400-417-74 record in 11-plus seasons in charge of the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliates in Worcester, Cleveland and Kentucky, joins Fred “Bun” Cook, Frank Mathers and John Paddock as the only head coaches in AHL history to reach the 400-win plateau.

Win number one came on Oct. 17, 1998, when Sommer guided Kentucky to a 6-4 win over the Albany River Rats. In the Albany lineup that night was defenseman David Cunniff, who is currently in his eighth season as Sommer’s assistant coach.

Sommer has Worcester sitting at 7-3-0-1, good for second place in the Atlantic Division and the best 11-game start in the Sharks’ four-year history.

BULLDOGS STILL PERFECT IN REGULATION … The Hamilton Bulldogs picked up four points via a win and two shootout losses last week, extending their season-opening points streak to 11 games (7-0-1-3). Not only is Hamilton the only AHL team yet to suffer a regulation loss in 2009-10, the Bulldogs have never trailed at an intermission in any of their 11 games.

In his first season in Steeltown, Curtis Sanford has a 5-1-2 record and places among the AHL’s top five in both goals-against average (1.32) and save percentage (.950) while tying for the league lead with two shutouts in eight appearances. Newcomers Tom Pyatt (6-3-9) and Mathieu Darche (7-2-9) are tied for the team scoring lead with returning second-year pro Brock Trotter (3-6-9), and that trio is a combined plus-23 on the season.

Hamilton takes on the Binghamton Senators this weekend in a pair of games at the home rinks of the clubs’ respective NHL affiliates, battling at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Friday and at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Sunday. Portland (Buffalo), Lowell (Newark, N.J.) and Adirondack (Philadelphia) are also scheduled to play home games in their NHL affiliates’ arenas later this season.

ETC. … Abbotsford scored just five regulation goals in three games last week but won all three to salvage a split of its six-game road trip; the Heat had dropped the first three games by a combined score of 18-5… The two-game set at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg between Norfolk and Manitoba to open this week marks those teams’ first-ever meetings… Rochester’s current eight-game winning streak is the longest by an Amerks club since the 2004-05 team won eight in a row twice; the 1999-2000 Rochester squad won nine in a row on two occasions… All seven teams in the North Division begin the week with points percentages at or above .500, with six of the seven at .600 or better… Albany rookie Zach Boychuk has a point in each of the River Rats’ seven games at the Times Union Center this season (4-5-9), but is scoreless in four games on the road… Texas goaltenders Brent Krahn and Matt Climie have combined to stop 157 of 163 shots (.963), including one shutout, during the club’s current five-game points streak (4-0-0-1)… Toronto rookie Viktor Stalberg has racked up five points (2-3-5) in two games since being assigned from the parent Maple Leafs, including a two-goal-and-two-assist showing on Sunday vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton… After posting a combined minus-7 rating in Friday’s 6-0 loss to Hershey, Hartford’s Corey Locke (2-5-7) and Bobby Sanguinetti (3-3-6) totaled 13 points in wins over Providence and Manchester to close out the weekend… Hershey’s Francois Bouchard had seven points (2-5-7) and a plus-5 rating in two games last week… Peoria defenseman Jonas Junland has a point in five straight games (2-5-7) and 10 of 11 overall (6-7-13)… Grand Rapids had never won more than two straight games to begin its home schedule before starting 5-0-0-0 at Van Andel Arena this season… Houston ranks last in the league on the power play (4-for-61, 6.6 percent), but first on the penalty kill (46-for-48, 95.8 percent).