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December 25. 2013 11:08PM

Monarchs back to work tonight

Goalie Jean-Francois Berube misses a puck that sends his water bottle flying during Monarchs practice at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester last week. Berube’s strong play while Martin Jones has been in Los Angeles has kept Manchester at the top of the AHL.Thomas Roy/Union Leader 

The best team in the AHL will get back to work tonight on Elm Street.

After four days off for the Christmas break, the Manchester Monarchs — who lead the AHL with 47 points on the strength of a 21-5-5 record — will host Atlantic Division rival Portland (11-10-25 for 27 points) at 7 p.m. at Verizon Wireless Arena.With Manchester’s top goaltender (Martin Jones) called up to Los Angeles since mid-November, along with several key forwards and a slew of injuries, just how have head coach Mark Morris and his coaching staff been able to put together the best record in the league?

“I’ve had a few people ask that question,” Morris said with a chuckle. “From a coaching perspective, you’re always looking for new ways to motivate and try to get guys to continue to find ways to win and play hard. To our players’ credit, guys have been able to step up and help shoulder the burden. On any given night it could be any player and that’s been a real positive.”

One of the key components has been rookie goaltender J.F. Berube, who was played in 17 consecutive games and owns a record of 12-4-2 for the fourth most wins in the AHL despite playing sparingly early in the year.

“The goaltending has obviously been a big plus,” Morris said. “J.F. Berube has picked up the slack because that void is something that I don’t think anyone realized he had the ability to fill as quickly as he has been able to. That’s a credit to J.F. He wasn’t getting prime time ice. He’s taken full advantage of that. He’s played a lot of three (games in three days) and has gained a lot of confidence in that time in the net.”

The time off for Christmas is a nice bonus for everyone as well.

“This break comes at a welcome time,” Morris said. “It’s good to recharge the batteries and I think that for a lot of these young pros to get an opportunity to touch base with their loved ones and families is something that is a real positive for everybody. Especially for the guys that are away from home for the first time for a pro season.”The Monarchs will also be able to enjoy some time in town with a small homestand. After tonight’s game with Portland, Manchester hosts St. John’s on Saturday at 7 p.m., Hartford on Sunday at 3 p.m. and Providence on Tuesday at 7 p.m. for the annual New Year’s Eve game.

“No matter where they’re played, you still have the same goals and that’s to try and rack up the wins. But to play them in your home rink is great for the city and great for the players,” Morris said. “You’re not spending a lot of time riding on the bus and spending that additional time away from familiar surroundings. We hope to take advantage of it because the home rink has been good to us.”

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