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AHL Weekly: Monarchs primed for another run

WEEKLY RELEASE #18

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Manchester Monarchs have enjoyed plenty of success since joining the AHL, reaching the playoffs eight times in nine tries and advancing to a pair of Eastern Conference Finals. And with nine weeks left in the 2010-11 regular season, the Monarchs’ 10th anniversary edition is well primed for another run at the postseason.

Manchester has battled Portland for first place in the Atlantic Division all season, and with a 14-5-0-3 mark since Dec. 17 the Monarchs enter the new week holding a two-point edge on the Pirates at 31-16-1-4 (67 points). Fifth-year head coach Mark Morris, who won his 200th regular-season game with Manchester on Jan. 29, has his club among the AHL’s top 10 in both offense (3.23 goals per game) and defense (2.71). Manchester boasts a league-best .875 points percentage when scoring the game’s first goal (20-2-0-2), and the Monarchs are an impressive 24-1-0-1 when taking a lead into the third period.

The Monarchs returned 13 regulars from the squad which fell to Hershey in the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, including 21-year-old defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov, who has already established career highs in goals (12), assists (25) and points (37). The top-scoring rearguard in the AHL was a second-round draft pick by the parent Los Angeles Kings in 2008, and is currently the only AHL defenseman who is leading his team in scoring.

On a roster touched by turnover all season – no Monarch has appeared in all 52 games to date – Manchester claims nine different skaters who have hit double digits in goals already, led by forward Bud Holloway (16-20-36). Seven Monarchs have also appeared in the NHL with the Kings in 2010-11 including Andrei Loktionov, who has averaged a point per game (8-23-31) while leading Manchester in plus/minus (+15) this season. Oscar Moller, a second-round selection by the Kings in 2007, is enjoying a breakout season with a career-best 34 points (13-21-34) to go along with a plus-12 rating in just 38 games for Manchester while also contributing a goal and two assists in four games with Los Angeles. Second-year pro Dwight King has topped his rookie totals with 14 goals and 30 points in 44 outings and made his NHL debut with six appearances for the Kings, and Monarchs captain and former second-round pick Marc-Andre Cliche also boasts career-high totals in goals (14), assists (15) and points (29) through 42 games.

Corey Elkins, who led the Monarchs with 21 goals as a rookie in 2009-10, has registered 13 goals and 28 points in 49 games this season. Veterans Justin Azevedo (12-16-28) and David Meckler (13-10-23) are enjoying strong showings in their third and fourth seasons with the Monarchs, respectively, and rookie Brandon Kozun, who put up 107 and 108 points in his last two years of junior hockey for Calgary (WHL), has contributed 23 points (11-12-23) – including four game-winning goals – in 45 contests.

Drafted fourth overall by Los Angeles in 2007, defenseman Thomas Hickey endured an injury-plagued rookie campaign in 2009-10 but has bounced back to post 21 points and a plus-12 rating in 51 games this season. Rookie Jake Muzzin (1-8-9 in 17 GP) has bounced between Manchester and Los Angeles, and Colten Teubert, the 13th overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft, has a goal and five assists in 31 games for the Monarchs.

Rookie goaltender Martin Jones, who went 81-16-5 over his last two junior seasons in Calgary, has an 18-5-1 mark to begin his pro career and ranks among the AHL’s leaders in goals-against average (fifth, 2.11) and save percentage (fourth, .932). Former third-round draft pick Jeff Zatkoff has added a 12-11-3 mark in 28 outings.

The week ahead has the Monarchs hosting Hershey in a conference finals rematch on Wednesday before continuing a four-game homestand over the weekend with tilts against division foes Portland (Friday), Bridgeport (Saturday), and Springfield (Sunday).

GEOFFRION FINDS GROOVE.. Milwaukee rookie center Blake Geoffrion has put together one of the AHL’s best two-week stretches in recent memory, tallying a goal in four straight games and totaling 13 points (5-8-13) in that span en route to winning consecutive Reebok/AHL Player of the Week awards. He became the first back-to-back winner of the weekly award since fellow University of Wisconsin product Jim Carey of the Portland Pirates did it for the periods ending Oct. 30 and Nov. 6, 1994.

Geoffrion has registered 16 points (6-10-16) in his last six contests after posting 16 points (4-12-16) in his first 31 games this season, and the surge has vaulted him from 32nd place in the AHL rookie scoring race to a share of eighth. Geoffrion, whose grandfather (Bernie Geoffrion) and great-grandfather (Howie Morenz) are both enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, enjoyed a four-year career at UW that saw him record 28 goals and 50 points as a senior in 2009-10 and capture the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.

BEARS CLAWING THEIR WAY UP … The Hershey Bears, coming off two straight Calder Cup victories and an AHL-record 60-win regular season in 2009-10, woke up the morning of Dec. 19 holding a fourth-place record of 16-12-0-1 following a season-worst three-game losing skid. What’s more, the Bears were just 7-7-0-0 on home ice after posting 34-4-0-2 mark at Giant Center last season.

Since then, however, the Bears have earned points in 18 of 20 games (15-2-1-2) – including a 10-1-0-2 mark on home ice – to open up a five-point lead on Charlotte and Norfolk for second place in the East Division at 31-14-1-3 overall. With two games in hand through Monday’s action, Hershey is eight points back of a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club which has been perched atop the AHL standings all season long, and the arch-rivals will battle each other four more times before the regular season is out.

Hershey’s turnaround coincides almost exactly with the return to the lineup of reigning AHL MVP Keith Aucoin, who has put up 8-23-31 in 21 games since coming back from a month-long injury absence and who enters the week riding an 11-game scoring streak (3-15-18). Brian Willsie has also heated up with points in nine straight outings (9-5-14) for the Bears, while Andrew Gordon (22-24-46) and Kyle Greentree (19-25-44) join Aucoin and Willsie among the AHL’s top 25 scorers.

ETC. … Rookie goaltender Carter Hutton backed up Antti Niemi in San Jose’s 2-0 win in Boston on Saturday afternoon, then headed 40 miles west and earned his first pro shutout in Worcester’s 2-0 win over visiting Providence… Houston’s Patrick O’Sullivan has registered five goals and nine points in eight games since joining the club, and all five goals have come on home ice… Grand Rapids defenseman Doug Janik has put up six points (1-5-6) during his five-game scoring streak after recording seven points (3-4-7) in his first 28 games of the year… Syracuse rookie Kyle Palmieri (2-6-8) and Nick Bonino (3-3-6) have combined for 14 points in the club’s last five games… Springfield rookie goaltender Gustaf Wesslau has started a season-high four straight games and posted a 3-1-0 record (1.72, .946) in that span… Lake Erie’s Mark Olver, who has a point in six straight (4-4-8) and 11 of his last 13 games (10-5-15), has taken over the AHL rookie scoring lead with 36 points (21-15-36) in 50 contests overall… Abbotsford’s Leland Irving (20-16-2) set an AHL record with his ninth shootout win of the season on Friday at Chicago; 12 of the Heat’s 23 victories in 2010-11 have come via overtime (2) or shootout (10)… Rookie Roman Wick has tallied the decisive goal in three of Binghamton’s last four victories… Toronto has killed off 29 consecutive shorthanded situations over an eight-game span, lifting the Marlies’ overall penalty kill to second place in the AHL (87.1 percent)… Providence has won five straight home games and lost three consecutive road contests; prior to these streaks, the Bruins were 5-13-1-1 at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and 13-7-2-0 on the road… Friday’s 4-2 loss marked Peoria’s first visit to division-rival Chicago all season; the in-state foes will collide six more times in 2010-11, with three games in each city… The Rivermen take on Houston at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., this Sunday afternoon… Following Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Portland, Connecticut will not play on XL Center ice again until Mar. 2; the Whale are on the road for seven of their next eight games, and the lone home game is the Feb. 19 outdoor contest vs. Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.