(Photo: The AHL)
The Monarchs were finally back at it on Thursday night as they kicked off the AHL Eastern Conference Finals against the Hartford Wolf Pack. It had been over a week since Manchester had seen a game. They finished off the second round on Tuesday, May 12th with a 2-1 over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 4 games to 1. Hartford had also had a bit of a break, finishing off their series on Friday, May 15th.
This marked the first trip to the Conference Finals for the Monarchs since 2010 when they beat the Worcester Sharks to advance, only to lose to the eventual Calder Cup champs the Hershey Bears. In their final season in Manchester, these team seems committed to give their fans all they can.
Once again, the Monarchs got on the board early, it what has seemed to be a trend this post season. Rookie Michael Mersch netted his first of the game and 7th of the playoffs just 35 seconds in. With a lot of traffic in front of Wolf Pack goaltender Yann Danis, Mersch committed to locating the puck and jammed it home.
It was clear from the first puck drop that this was playoff hockey and the Conference Finals at that. Things were tense from the beginning, with players continuing to make contact after every whistle. It was also apparent that it was playoff hockey in the fact that the referees were letting a lot slide.
Hartford showed their dedication too, though, not letting such an early goal get to them. At 11:33, the Wolf Pack evened up the score. Joey Crab dug the puck out of the corner and fed it to Chris Bourque. Bourque made a quick pass to Oscar Lindberg who had a wide open net to beat JF Berube.
Despite some great chances on both sides, the score would remained tied going into the first intermission. When the teams came out for the second, it was a show of goaltending to start. Both Berube and Danis were showcasing the role they played in helping get their teams to the Conference Finals.
Hartford was struggling to connect on passes as physicality continued to carry on past the whistles. The Monarchs were quick to capitalize on those struggles. Rookie Nic Dowd found himself on an odd man break with only one defenseman to beat. They have been emphasizing taking shots in practice and Dowd did just that. He had a beautiful shot that he put right of the left shoulder of Danis to put the puck right under the crossbar giving the Monarchs the lead back at 11:07.
With the 2-1 lead, the Monarchs were not going to sit back to see what happened. Mersch once again showed what a valuable player he has been to this team. There was even more traffic in front of Danis this time as he found himself down on the ice facing too much activity get to his feet. Defenseman Kevin Gravel took a shot from the blue line, knowing someone would get it to the net. Mersch turned out to be just that someone, jamming the puck home from his knees for his second of the game and 8th of the playoffs at 16:07.
The momentum seemed to have shifted to the Monarchs as they took a 3-1 lead into the second intermission. The Wolf Pack came out still with some fight in the final frame but continued to have trouble connecting on passes.
But the Wolf Pack were down and not out. At 6:43, veteran defenseman Mat Bodie pulled Hartford within one again. He took a shot from the face-off circle to Berube’s right that managed to slide between his pad and the post but looked like it took a strange bounce in the process.
Only being down by one seemed to breathe a little bit of life into the Wolf Pack, but the Monarchs were doing their best to hold onto their lead. Towards the end of the game, the referees finally see something from Hartford that they cannot ignore. Monarchs forward Sean Backman has another near miss at an attempt to put the Monarchs up 4-2. Following the whistle, the same roughing around as has happened all game continues. However, this time Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan McIlrath seemed to take it too far and might have shoved the linesman in his attempt to get at the Monarchs. That resulted in a ten minute misconduct for him with less than 3 minutes in the game.
It was clear Hartford wanted to pull Danis for the extra attacker but was struggling to keep the puck in the Manchester zone. At 1:24 to go in the game, Danis was able to skate to the bench and the Wolf Pack began furiously trying to get one past Berube to force overtime. But Berube and the Monarchs stood tall to take Game 1.
It was a hard fought game on both sides and it was clear that both teams were ready to play. The Wolf Pack have one previous Calder Cup from 15 years ago but the Monarchs have not made it to the finals in their 14 seasons in Manchester. It will be interesting how game 2 plays out on Saturday.