Monarchs preparing for playoff push

by Nick Chacos || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Manchester Monarchs, the primary affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, are currently leading the Eastern Conference and the American Hockey League with 84 points, and 14 games remaining on their schedule through Saturday. After collecting just 81 points through all of their 2012-13 campaign, there is a different feeling in the locker room this season heading toward the postseason.

The Monarchs have had players from every position step up and contribute to their league-leading point total. Center Jordan Weal (15-38-53) is a talented stick-handler who makes the skaters around him better any time he is on the ice. The defensive pairing of Vincent LoVerde (plus-35) and Andrew Bodnarchuk (plus-33), who rank among the league leaders in plus/minus, challenge every possession as soon as the puck crosses the blue line. Goaltenders Martin Jones, who was recalled by Los Angeles and has posted a 9-4-0 record with the Kings, and J.F. Berube, who leads AHL rookies with 21 wins, have backstopped the team to the top of the standings.

“We’ve squeaked out a lot of close games,” said head coach Mark Morris, whose Monarchs are 14-4-2-6 in one-goal contests. “Strong goaltending has been a big factor, timely scoring, and some real key comebacks. I think that having a veteran defenseman like Jeff Schultz has helped us stabilize our defensive core. He, along with Andrew Campbell, and Andrew Bodnarchuk have been around the league for quite a few years now. We haven’t had that much of a veteran presence behind the blue line in recent memory.

“The same holds true up front. A guy like Colin Fraser that brings that steadying presence around him. We’ve been fortunate to also have some key young guys that have performed really well; some key pro tryout guys that have chipped in, and contributed in big ways. So, that in combination has really allowed us to stay very competitive.”

Due to the nature of the AHL, players can sometimes tend to focus on individual development and on the status of their parent National Hockey League team. One of the questions that can arise around this time of the year is whether the postseason tournament carries much weight in the minds of AHL players. In the Monarchs locker room, nobody needs convincing that a Calder Cup championship would be an enormous accomplishment.

“It’s really important,” Monarchs captain Andrew Campbell stated. “If you ask anyone in Los Angeles right down to Manchester, you want to have that winning culture. You expect to win; you don’t show up hoping to win. You come to the rink everyday expecting to win. It starts at the top and it runs right down here. So winning a playoff series, winning two playoff series, winning a championship helps breed that winning culture, which is huge.”

Despite finishing the season on a winning note in recent years, the team has had trouble escaping the first round. Last year, Manchester won six of its last seven regular-season matchups to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Despite their strong finish, the Monarchs were eliminated by the Springfield Falcons in the first round, marking the third consecutive year that Manchester was unable to win a playoff series.

The Monarchs last made a playoff run during their 2009-10 campaign, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to the Hershey Bears. Hershey would go on to win the Calder Cup that year. In fact, in three of the last four seasons, the Monarchs have been eliminated by the eventual Calder Cup champions.

This year, however, the Monarchs have been able to remain one of the top teams in the AHL and are in a position to enter the playoffs as one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference. Campbell believes that their ranking this year will have a significant impact on the outcome of this team’s destiny.

“Especially the last couple years, we’ve had to fight right down to the last Saturday and Sunday of the season to secure a playoff berth,” explained Campbell. “It’s always tough when you have to expend every bit of energy you have just to get in the playoffs, and by the time the first round comes around, you’ve kind of emptied a little bit of your tank.

“We have a nice little lead right now at the top of the conference, but other teams have games in hand. We have to continue to win so when the last weekend of the season comes around, we’re not scraping tooth and nail to get in. We still expect to win, but our focus can kind of be what lies ahead in the playoffs.”

Right wing Brian O’Neill echoed his captain’s emphasis on remaining consistent and the importance of entering the postseason as a higher seed.

“This year, I think we were focused on just sustaining that start and I think we did that really well,” shared O’Neill. “I think we were pretty consistent through the winter and we’ve continued that. Hopefully, we can put ourselves in a position to win in the first round and get a decent matchup compared to the last couple years where we’ve limped in as a seventh or eighth seed.”

Another reason why focus and energy are so crucial heading into the postseason is because the games become so much more competitive. Three of the current top eight teams in the Eastern Conference have parent organizations that would miss the NHL playoffs if they were to start this weekend. That means that those teams would likely add some NHL talent to their rosters for the playoffs, giving them a boost during the tournament. With the Kings having a comfortable cushion over the eighth seed in the NHL Western Conference, the Monarchs will likely have to work with the talent they already have, so they will have to stay even keeled and keep improving if they are aiming for a deep playoff run this time around.

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” said Morris. “I think we’ve proven that when we are focused, we can be very effective collectively. Teaching the guys to respect how we manage the puck and how to manage the clock, those are the biggest challenges right now.

“I think that if we’re smart, we’ll see if we can grow our game a little bit more by being more attentive to details in our game, finding ways to get better on our power play and better on our penalty kill, and start playing full games. You’re taking your chances if you’re not playing a complete game.”

Campbell reiterated that there is still much work to be done before the team can start looking ahead to the postseason.

“We still have a lot of business to take care of. We’re just taking it a day at a time right now; game-by-game, weekend-by-weekend,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of young guys that are experiencing this for the first time so we like to keep them and their focus narrowed down on what’s directly ahead and not what’s going on in the future.

“These are the days you have to really be a professional, continue to push yourself and not let the season wear on you. Just continue to show up to the rink energized and ready to go.”

O’Neill added, “Mark and (assistant coach Freddy Meyer) do a really good job of keeping their foot down and making sure we don’t get complacent. It’s really easy, especially when you’re in first place and you’ve had a little bit of a cushion most of the year, to just get lackadaisical. The standings are so tight right now that there’s no real room for error. If you go on a slide here, you’re going to be in a real tough spot come playoff time. I think they do a really great job week-by-week, even if we have a lot of success, at keeping us in the present.”

With the season winding down and the Monarchs holding an eight-point lead in the Atlantic Division, the locker room does not have quite the same tension that has accompanied the months of March and April in recent years. With the coaching staff focused on keeping the team physically fresh and mentally sharp, the last remaining question is whether or not the team feels satisfied.

Coach Morris, who is known for demanding 100-percent effort from his players at all times, is sure to remind his club that it is far too soon to praise the season’s accomplishments.

“My biggest message to our players right now is, ‘Where are we going to take it from here?’”