(Photo: Manchester Monarchs)
The Manchester Monarchs kicked off their first round, best-of-5 series against the Norfolk Admirals last night. Strangely, despite finishing atop their conference and earning the number one seed, Manchester did not earn home ice advantage. Apparently due to the distance between the two cities (12 hours by bus), Manchester’s schedule had them playing the first two games at home. The next three games (with four and five being only if necessary) would be in Norfolk.
Game 1 kicked off and it was clear that the atmosphere was one of playoff hockey. The game was physical with a lot of hitting on both sides. Despite not seeing each other much during the season, this was exactly what the Monarchs expected from the series.
With Brian O’Neill out after sustaining an injury at the end of the season, Head Coach Mark Morris had to fill someone in for him on the first line with Sean Backman and Jordan Weal. The spot went to Mike Mersch, a recent addition to the team after completing his four years at University of Wisconsin. He added some size and really seemed to be able to keep pace with his new linemates.
That new line proved that they really were a good fit at 11:38 of the first period. Mersch came flying into the offensive zone and got around the Norfolk defense to get to the puck first. He fed the puck to Backman, who was right in front of the net. Backman put it behind Admirals goalie John Gibson for the first score of the postseason. This was Backman’s first AHL postseason goal. It was also Mersch’s first AHL postseason point.
Manchester continued to control the pace of the game despite the fact that Norfolk led in shots. With less than 30 seconds remaining in the first, the Admirals took the first penalty of the game and Manchester would take that power play into the second period.
The Monarchs skated out with a one goal lead for the second period still on the power play. Despite some good chances, Gibson came up with a few key saves that kept Manchester from getting on the board again.
When Manchester got another power play opportunity, they got another chance to test out their power play. With the shake-up to the lineup, their new first power play unit featured Andy Andreoff, Nick Shore, and Mike Mersch up front with Zach O’Brien as the fourth forward at the point and Brayden McNabb as the lone defenseman. Unfortunately, they were once again unable to convert despite some good chances.
The battle between the two teams really showed off how good the goaltending was on both sides. John Gibson has been a great force both in the AHL and during his 3 games with Anaheim, where he had three wins. Monarchs goalie JF Berube came up huge throughout the game as well. After battling for the back-up position in Manchester to start the season, he has stepped into the role as starting goalie and made it look easy. After a possibly shaking start on the first save or two in his first professional playoff game, Berube went on to make some impressive saves and did excellent controlling the rebound.
At the end of the second, the score was still the same with Manchester leading 1-0. There seemed to be a lot of chances that just weren’t going Manchester’s way. To start off the third, the Monarchs took an early penalty but their penalty kill units stood strong. In addition to Berube standing tall, James Livingston and Hunter Bishop combined for a short handed attempt.
During the third, the Monarchs really seemed to want one more goal to give them a slightly more comfortable 2-0 lead. It was also seemed like Norfolk was playing frustrated hockey, pushing and shoving a lot after the whistles and around the net.
Finally, at 18:40 in the third, the Monarchs got the insurance goal that they had been looking for all night. Zach O’Brien maneuvered around the defenders and fired a shot that went right between Gibson’s legs. It was O’Briens first postseason AHL goal in his first AHL postseason game.
With that goal, Manchester solidified a win in game one, taking the 1-0 series lead. Berube earned the first star with the 30 save shutout, Backman earned second star honors with the game winning goal, and Gibson earned the third star for his 24 saves.
The two teams meet again tonight for game two before heading down to Norfolk to continue the series.