READING, Pa. – It was yet another goaltenders’ duel in game four of the North Division Semifinals, but the Manchester Monarchs would hold off the Reading Royals to finish off the first-round sweep in a 3-0 victory at Santander Arena.
The Monarchs (4-0) rode yet another strong performance by Charles Williams to take the shutout victory over Reading (0-4). The Royals, for their part, also received a strong game between the pipes by John Muse. But the lone goal he allowed would prove to be enough, as Reading could not solve Williams, and the Monarchs would add two empty-netters in the final minutes to seal the victory.
The first period started off rough for the Monarchs, as they would go down 5-on-3 at 4:03 after penalties to Kevin Morris and Colton Saucerman. But the Manchester kill would hold the Reading attack to just three shots on the opportunity, escaping the early peril.
The Monarchs scored first for the first time in the series, at 7:50 of the middle frame. Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman would send the puck out between the circles, before circling behind the net himself from right to left. Matt Marcinew took control of the puck, and fed it to Smotherman, who was waiting at the far post behind Muse. Smotherman would beat Muse on the glove-side to make it 1-0.
That would prove to be the game-winner, as Manchester and Williams held the Royals at bay for the remainder of the game. The Monarchs would face yet another 5-on-3 situation at 16:42 of the third, after a delay of game penalty to Tony Turgeon and a slash by Matt Marcinew. But once again, the penalty kill held strong, allowing only three shots yet again, holding off a stiff attack by Royals’ leading goal scorer Matt Willows and Monarch-killer Michael Huntebrinker.
Muse would go off the ice with 2:15 left in the third, and the Monarchs would collect their second goal at 19:12 of the third. Marcinew would pick off the puck in the neutral zone and feed it to Zac Lynch, who fired off a shot from the blue line and into the cage. They would score a second empty net goal at 19:52, when Sam Kurker picked up the rebound of a shot on the cage by Cory Ward that went wide, putting it home to end the game at 3-0.
The Takeaway – Coming into the playoffs with one win in seven games, the Monarchs looked like they were limping to finish off the season. It’s safe to say that, as strong as the Royals have been at times this season, especially at home, and with the return of Muse to the net, that no one could have seen this sweep coming. But this was a different side to the Monarchs that hasn’t often been seen this season, one where they really tightened up on the defensive end. Williams certainly carried his weight and then some, but the Monarchs did well to limit quality chances and avoid costly turnovers. They could have done a little better at avoiding penalties, especially going down two men twice in game four, but ultimately they did what they needed to do to take this series away in one of the toughest buildings for a visitor to win a game in.
The Royals were a quality opponent, and Muse was everything he was billed to be and more. Chris McCarthy was a standout on offense for Reading, picking up six points in the series. But the Monarchs held ECHL third-place scorer Matt Willows to just one goal across four games, thanks largely in part to physical play by Turgeon harassing him the whole way. Limiting those chances by Willows was a key to winning this series, and they handled him ably. The Royals were a worthy opponent, and will be missed.
So now, it’s a waiting game. Adirondack are up 3-1 over the Railers in the other North Division series, with game five not scheduled until Saturday night. This gives the Monarchs plenty of time to rest after playing so much extra hockey, but sometimes too much rest can be a bad thing, so here’s hoping that the series wraps up quickly and Manchester can get back on the ice with some momentum behind them.
If Adirondack does indeed win, this will be the third straight year in which the Monarchs will face them in the playoffs, having been first-round opponents in each of the past two seasons. The teams have split series victories 1-1, with the lower seed winning each time. Should the Railers come back to take the series away, it will be the franchise’s first playoff series win, and the first postseason meeting between the two clubs. It will also be the first playoff matchup between Manchester and Worcester since the 2010 Calder Cup playoffs, where the Monarchs defeated the Worcester Sharks 4-2 in the second round.
Notes – Just one note: Williams has now played just shy of 112 consecutive minutes of shutout hockey. There were some doubts going in, and justifiably, as to whether the Monarchs would even make it out of round one, much less compete for the Kelly Cup. If 112 minutes isn’t a statement to the contrary, nothing is.
Game one of the North Division Finals is TBA. We will have a preview of Round two as soon as the matchups are set.