So the Manchester Monarchs made the playoffs as an eighth seed (talk about parallels, huh?). But wait! The similarities don't end there. Just like the big club, the Monarchs were also faced with the daunting task of facing the top team in their entire league. In fact, one could easily argue that the Monarchs faced an even steeper mountain to climb than their parent club. The Norfolk Admirals (Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate) were simply that good in the AHL regular season.
Forget the win streak for a second. The point gap between the Kings and Canucks was 16 (111-95), while the gap between the Admirals and Monarchs was 30 (113-83), or almost twice as big. Also the Admirals dominated their league to a far greater degree than the Canucks, who finished just 2 points ahead of two other teams (St. Louis and the New York Rangers both finished the season with 109 points). Second-place in the entire AHL went to the Edmonton Oilers' affiliates in Oklahoma City, who finished the season with just 99 points (or 14 points behind the Admirals).
Okay, now let's talk about that win streak. Read on after the jump!
28 straight games in the regular season. Yes, you read that right: the Admirals WON TWENTY-EIGHT STRAIGHT GAMES. They blew by the previous record, which was 17 straight wins by the Philadelphia Phantoms in 04-05 (the lockout season, when they had a number of players who probably should have already been playing with the Flyers, including current Kings Mike Richards & Jeff Carter, and assistant coach John Stevens). That streak became 29 straight games when they won Game 1 in Norfolk, getting out to a 3-0 lead and managing to hold on for a 3-2 victory, as the Monarchs came up short in a furious third period comeback attempt.
But that near-miss of a comeback seemed to only fan the fires of the Monarchs, and they overwhelmed the Admirals in Game 2 en route to a 5-2 win. Due to the AHL's bizzare 1st round playoff format just introduced this season, this win is even bigger for the Monarchs than it may first appear. The first round of the AHL playoffs is a best-of-5 format, and as the higher seed Norfolk got the first two games at home. However, this system results in the last three games all being hosted by the lower seed. I don't really get why the lower seed gets rewarded with three straight home games, but that's how it works in the AHL (and as Monarchs supporters, obviously we'll take it). So it makes it very important for the higher seed to win both of their home games in the first round, because if you let the road team get a split (as the Admirals did here), now you have to win 2 of 3 on the road to move on. Advantage: Monarchs.
So that's why this win for the Monarchs was so huge. Snapped a record-breaking 29-game win streak, tied a best-of-5 playoff series with the last 3 games all being played in Manchester. All very good things. The question now becomes, how exactly did they pull this off?
A lot of the credit must go to Monarchs rookie Linden Vey, who scored 2 goals and assisted on the game-winner as well. If you'll recall from my Monarchs prospect review, Vey was one of the few players on their roster who I was really excited about. He's a right-winger of about average size (5'11 176 lbs, so still probably needs to put on some muscle to play on the NHL level) who had a very nice 116 point final season in the WHL. In his first full year as a pro, Vey put up good numbers. But from reading the recap, it sounded like he was on-fire in the playoffs. And you have to like any player who can step up their game when it matters the most.
Let's hear all about Vey's contributions via this recap from WMUR in Manchester:
The Monarchs opened the scoring with a 4-on-4 goal by Vey at 11:23 of the first period. With the Admirals in possession of the puck along the left wing half wall in the Monarchs zone, right wing Brandon Kozun and Hickey applied pressure producing a turnover where Hickey chipped the puck out of Manchester’s territory. Vey picked up the loose puck along the right wing boards and skated in on Admirals netminder Jarsolav Janus on a partial breakaway. Vey moved the puck back-and-forth from his forehand to his backhand and flipped a shot beating Janus for his first professional post-season tally.
Center Robbie Czarnik gave the Monarchs a 3-2 lead at 5:28 of the third period. Defenseman Thomas Hickey grabbed the puck off the left wing half wall and passed it to Vey in the left face-off circle. Vey quickly redirected Hickey’s pass to Czarnik on the right doorstep of the Admirals cage. Czarnik shot the puck into the net for his first professional post-season goal and the eventual game-winning tally.
The Monarchs grabbed an insurance goal by Vey at 16:16 of the third period to take a 4-2 lead. Vey poked the puck free from an Admirals defenseman in the Monarchs zone before tracking down the loose puck along the left wing boards. Vey skated in for a partial breakaway and wristed a shot that beat Janus on his blocker side for the rookie’s second goal of the game.
Twice Vey found time and space to end up on partial breaks, and it sounds like he made a really nifty touch-pass to set-up Czarnik on the game-winner as well. It was a fantastic game for the 2009 4th-round pick.
Credit also must go to undrafted netminder Martin Jones, who stopped 37 of 39 shots to help earn the victory. I had speculated that 2006 3rd rounder Jeff Zatkoff would get the nod in the playoffs, due to their very similar regular season numbers and Zatkoff having slightly more experience, but after Zatkoff got pulled in Game 1 (giving up 3 goals on just 13 shots), Jones came in and didn't allow another goal in the game. Jones was of course then given the nod over Zatkoff in Game 2, and obviously he came up huge.
So the Monarchs come home now for Game 3 (not to mention the rest of the series), perhaps feeling more confident than ever that they can pull off an upset. We'll update you either way, of course, so stay tuned.
(NOTE: There doesn't appear to be any video yet on Game 2, at least that I can find. As soon as I see it I'll update this post to include it. In the meantime, if you want to check out some footage from Game 1, here's a link to a short report from Norfolk local TV.)
Thanks to Nut, here's another Norfolk local TV report on Game 2:
Admirals Lose Game 2, Series Tied 1-1 (via wavy)