(Photo: Heather Stebbins, The Pink Puck)
While the Stanley Cup Finals surge on in the NHL, the AHL Calder Cup Finals began last night with some excitement. The Manchester Monarchs, as the top team in the league during the regular season, came into the Finals knowing they would have home ice advantage throughout their entire playoff run.
This season marked the first time Manchester had ever made the Finals despite 12 post season appearances in their previous 13 seasons. But as they say, you save the best for last. In their final season in Manchester before moving out west to California, the Monarchs and their fans get to see Calder Cup Finals action as they face off against the Utica Comets, the best team from the West. It was something the city fully embraced. After the opening anthem, the Monarchs celebrated by bringing back former Monarchs for a ceremonial puck drop which included current Sabres alternate captain Matt Moulson.
The Monarchs had a long break between finishing the Conference Finals and beginning the Calder Cup Finals. Facing the Utica Comets was also brand new for them as they did not face off against any Western Conference teams through the regular season.
It seemed that Manchester came out a little over excited due to the break and had to settle down. It was not long into the first period before the teams were showing all the signs of old tensions. There started to be scrums after the whistles with pushing and shoving. Both teams were getting some good shots on Monarchs goalie JF Berube and Comets goalie Jacob Markstrom.
Starting with the first power play of the first period, a theme developed. It was Utica that had the first man advantage opportunity, but it was Manchester that had a great shorthanded opportunity. However, Utica did show their defensive ability by breaking up the passing on the shorthanded chance.
As has seemed to be the case throughout much of the playoffs, it was the Monarchs that struck first. Markstrom has undeniably been a force throughout the regular and post seasons, but Manchester’s top line showcased just why they might be the best in the AHL right now. With exactly four minutes remaining in the first, the Monarchs created a lot of traffic in front of the net and did not give up. Brian O’Neill was credited with his 10th of the playoffs, with the assists going to his line mates, Jordan Weal and Michael Mersch.
However, Utica continued to show incredible focus and determination. It paid off just over a minute later when they were able to tie things up. Just :13 into a power play, the puck ended up on Sven Baertschi’s stick and he easily put it into an open net.
The teams went into the first intermission tied and sure to be talking about any adjustments they felt that they needed to make from the first period. Although these teams had never played each other, it was not a surprise that they both came out fighting.
“They’re a good team and that first line is fast, that’s nothing we didn’t already know though,” Comets head coach Travis Green said after the game about the Monarchs.
“We weren’t surprised by anything we saw, there’s a reason they got to the finals,” Monarchs head coach Mike Stothers said of the Comets.
When the teams came out for the second, it seemed like a different feel from the first frame. It was all about the Monarchs creating pressure on the forecheck and keeping the puck in their offensive zone. But Utica continued to show their defensive game as they broke up passes and kept bodies from getting too close in front of the net.
Despite outshooting the Comets 12-3 in the second, the score stayed tied. It had been a strong showing from the Monarchs offense even though they were not able to find their way onto the score sheet again. It showed how their offensive talent matched up against the Comets defense. The Comets also did have one impressive shot from Alexandre Grenier on a 2-on-1 break but the glove save Berube made, grabbing the puck out of mid air, was even more impressive.
The third period started with the score still knotted at 1 and it seemed to be a change yet again. The Monarchs had been struggling on the power play but got another chance to test it out. They had been running with four forwards with Nick Shore joining the top line of Weal, O’Neill, and Mersch and Weal dropping back to the the point. At 2:23, the Monarchs were rewarded with a power play goal. This time it was rookie Mersch, who returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch in the final game against Hartford during the Conference Finals. He fired it home from Markstrom’s left side for his team leading 12th of the playoffs with assists going to Shore and O’Neill.
Neither team was showing any signs of letting up. The Comets did not let themselves get discouraged by having Manchester take the lead back and the Monarchs were certainly not comfortable with a one goal lead.
Just over 3 minutes after the Monarchs took the lead back, the Comets tied it up at 2 apiece. Cory Conacher had some impressive stick work by the blue before taking a soft wrist shot from a distance that managed to beat Berube.
That was how it would stay for the rest of the period despite some hard effort on both sides. They both continued to fight for position and continued to check each other at every opportunity. But, in keeping with how closely matched the teams seemed both on paper and on the ice, this game was destined for overtime.
With the way the game had gone up until the beginning of overtime, it would not have been at all surprising to see a long overtime. That did not end up being the case though. Mersch seemed eager to prove himself as he registered another two goal game in the playoffs. This time it was the overtime game winner in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals. As is the case with many of his goals, he put it past Markstrom with a lot of traffic in front of the net. The Monarchs started celebrating before the officials said that the goal was under review. It did not end up mattering though, because it was a good goal and the Monarchs took a hard fought Game 1.
If one thing was obvious, it was that these teams are evenly matched in many ways and this does not look like it will be a series where Manchester can put a lot of goals on the scoring sheet. With the teams back at it for Game 2 tonight, it will be interesting to watch how this series unfolds. It also seems likely both teams will have to replace players that have been key parts of their systems. The Monarchs lost defenseman Jeff Schultz, a big veteran presence on the blue line, and the Comets lost Sven Baertschi who registered a goal. Neither coach commented on the status of their injuries.