The hardest game to win in a seven-game playoff series is always going to be the clincher. Last night proved no different for the Manchester Monarchs. It wasn't pretty and it certainly wasn't easy, but they managed to hang on to win the game and take the series.
J.F. Berube was fantastic in this game, allowing only one goal, making several key stops under pressure and giving his team a chance to win.
The way this Monarchs team is playing, especially with the way Berube is playing, they remind me so much of last year's Los Angeles Kings team - except for the whole going down three games to none then roaring back and giving up three games to your division rival and being forced to win Game 7... But there are several similarities, in the way the play and the way that Berube has nearly cost them their season before settling down and finding his groove. (Also with regards to soft goals but that's kinda mean.)
Adrian Kempe opened the scoring 2:01 into the first period after Derrick Pouliot turned the puck over to Sean Backman who found Kempe crashing the net. It was a really smooth move to receive the puck on his forehand before scoring on the backhand.
That goal really seemed to jar the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (the Pittsburgh Penguins' affiliate, of course) awake as they poured on the pressure and even drew a penalty.
The Monarchs were excellent on the kill, blocking several shots and really disrupting the Penguins' power play.
With just about five minutes to go, David van der Gulik set up Nick Shore with a really nice drop pass. Shore fired off a laser of a wrist shot that beat Matthew Murray up high and ended his night.
Former Los Angeles Kings prospect Jeff Zatkoff came in to replace him with 5:03 left in the period. It wasn't a reflection on Murray, who'd been fine, according to the Pens' broadcasters. They believe it was more of a tactic the head coach was using to try and spark his team.
Berube made some of his best saves during an early second period power play for the Penguins. He's got a pretty good glove hand and he showed off that skill on that PK, keeping WBS off the board.
In a slightly amusing turn of events, Manchester had two shorthanded chances on that same kill.
Zatkoff was perfect in Murray's stead, but it didn't matter; the damage had already been done in the first period.
It's not as if the Monarchs didn't have their opportunities to make this a more lopsided game - they certainly did. Unlike the previous night, they were just unable to pad the lead, which didn't end up haunting them.
Conor Sheary, who has been an absolute pain in the rear end for Manchester, broke Berube's shutout with less than two minutes remaining in the second period. The Penguins won the faceoff cleanly and got the puck back to Sheary whose shot beat a screened Berube.
In a critical third period, the Penguins got off to a quick start, pressuring Berube and throwing several pucks towards the net. However, the Monarchs remained calm, ended up outshooting their opponent 9-6 overall and kept most of the threats to the outside. What made its way to Berube was smothered or turned aside.
The last 90 seconds were tense and chaotic, but few shots actually made it through to the goal as the Monarchs were doing everything to block shots and keep the Pens pinned along the boards.
Manchester was 0/2 on the power play and 3/3 on the penalty kill. This is the second game in a row they were perfect on the PK.
Manchester Monarchs 2015 Playoffs Individual Stats
|14||David Van der Gulik||LW||6||2||4||6||5||2||0||0||8||25.0|
The Monarchs await their next opponent, either the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals), against whom they went 2-2 this season, or the Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers), against whom they went 3-0-1.
Both teams present a strong challenge as they are well balanced offensively and feature strong goaltending, the Bears especially. Hershey might be more difficult as Philipp Grubauer was among the save percentage leaders in the AHL during the regular season.
I don't think Hartford would necessarily be easier but it is a lot closer. Hershey is 417 miles away while Hartford is about 134 miles away. From a travel standpoint, it'd definitely be more convenient to go to Connecticut so maybe the Monarchs should root for the Wolff Pack.
The first two games will be held next Thursday, May 21 at 7:00 p.m. ET and Saturday, May 23, 2015, likely at 7:00 p.m. as well.