SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … A white-hot run has propelled the Manchester Monarchs from the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Division to one of the best records in the entire American Hockey League, and fans in New Hampshire are once again hoping for a deep run in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Manchester’s current 12-game winning streak is the longest in the AHL since the Monarchs’ own 13-game streak in 2004-05, and has allowed the club to open up a 13-point lead over the rest of the Atlantic Division. Manchester owned an unremarkable 9-8-5-1 record on the morning of Dec. 3, but has been anything but ordinary since, going on a 25-4-1-0 run (.850) over its last 30 games, including 19 wins in 21 games since Christmas.
Leading the Monarchs’ rise to power has been goaltender Jason LaBarbera, who has made the most of his assignment to Manchester and is building a case to claim AHL MVP honors for the second time in four years. At 29-14-1, LaBarbera, who played 29 NHL games with the parent Los Angeles Kings in 2005-06, currently leads the league in wins, save percentage (.934) and minutes played (2,663), is tied for first with six shutouts, and has faced nearly 300 more shots than any other goaltender in the league.
LaBarbera has shouldered most of the load this season behind a young but talented team made up primarily of first- and second-year pros, along with a rookie head coach in Mark Morris, helping the Monarchs allow a league-low 2.28 goals per game.
Manchester’s defensemen are all former U.S. collegians, including 2007 AHL All-Stars Peter Harrold, a rookie out of Boston College, and T.J. Kemp, in his first full AHL season out of Mercyhurst. Eric Werner (Michigan), Bryan Schmidt (Merrimack) and Paul Crosty (Brown) all qualify as AHL rookies in 2006-07 and Joey Mormina (Colgate) is in his second pro campaign, joining veterans Doug Nolan (UMass-Lowell) and team captain Brendan Buckley (Boston College) on the blue line.
The Monarchs are 18-1-3-0 in their last 22 games at the Verizon Wireless Arena, but they take the show on the road this week for a four-game trip beginning in Rochester, where they will face off against the North Division-leading Americans on Friday night.
FALCONS RETIRE MURRAY’S #23 … The Springfield Falcons retired the jersey number 23 in honor of their former captain Rob Murray on Saturday night.
Murray, now an assistant coach with the Providence Bruins, was a member of the inaugural Falcons team in 1994-95 and played eight seasons in Springfield. He is the club’s all-time leader in games played (501), assists (157) and penalty minutes (1,531), and is one of six players in AHL history to appear in more than 1,000 regular-season contests.
Murray’s 23 joins Eddie Shore’s number 2 as the only numbers retired in Springfield.
TAKING STOCK … The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo has displaced the San Antonio Rampage from the AT&T Center for a month, but the club has used the opportunity to put together its best stretch of hockey this season.
Ten games into the 16-game trip, the Rampage are 5-4-0-1, including 4-1-0-1 in their last six contests. Yanick Lehoux has been San Antonio’s top scorer in the 10 contests with three goals and nine assists for 12 points, followed by Pascal Rheaume (4g, 7a) and reigning AHL MVP Donald MacLean (2g, 6a). David LeNeveu has a 2.14 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in his six starts on the trip.
Prior to this trip, the Rampage had won three of their previous 26 road games going back to last season.
THE LONELIEST NUMBER … The Houston Aeros have played 10 consecutive one-goal games, but have lost eight of them to fall six points out of the final playoff spot in the West Divison.
Including shootouts, Houston has suffered 19 losses by a one-goal margin this season, most in the AHL.
Hartford leads the league with 19 one-goal victories.
ETC. … On a conditioning assignment from Los Angeles, Kevin Dallman scored four goals, including two game-winners, in three games for Manchester over the weekend… Ben Walter scored back-to-back overtime goals to give Providence victories over Worcester on Friday and Lowell on Sunday… Toronto rookie goaltender Justin Pogge earned wins over Chicago and Philadelphia at Ricoh Coliseum over the weekend; he had been 0-9-0 at home this season in 10 previous appearances… Hamilton scored a team-record seven goals in the second period of Sunday’s 9-5 win over Rochester, pulling to within three points of the first-place Americans in the North Division… Kyle Wanvig had a hat trick in Springfield’s 5-2 win over Hartford on Saturday night, ending the Falcons’ nine-game winless streak… One night after snapping Norfolk’s 14-game home winning streak with a 4-2 win on Friday, Albany went into Hershey and dropped a 4-0 decision, the River Rats’ 19th consecutive loss to the Bears… Portland ended an 11-game road slide (0-7-2-2) with wins in Wilkes-Barre and Norfolk over the weekend… Manitoba’s Drew MacIntyre improved to 13-3-0 in his last 16 decisions with a pair of weekend victories over Syracuse… Making his first appearance since New Year’s Eve, Jimmy Howard stopped 28 shots as Grand Rapids shut out Iowa on Friday, 4-0… In its last 15 outings, Bridgeport has allowed an average of 42 shots on goal per game and been outshot 14 times, but has gone 10-4-0-1… The Binghamton Senators announced last week a five-year extension on their affiliation with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, as well as an agreement in principle on a five-year lease extension with the Broome County Arena… The Providence Bruins honored their predecessors, the Providence Reds, on Friday night and unveiled a banner commemorating the Reds’ four Calder Cup championships… Manitoba Moose captain and 2007 AHL All-Star Mike Keane is the subject of a feature story by Lindsay Berra in the Feb. 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.