Here come the spoilers and the desperate.
The Manchester Monarchs will face three teams this weekend that are on the outside of the playoff picture, starting tonight at 7 p.m. when Hartford visits Verizon Wireless Arena.
The Monarchs host Portland at 3 p.m. Saturday and close the weekend at Worcester Sunday at 3 p.m.
“Even if they’re out, these teams are playing looser,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “That’s not a bad thing when guys are playing for the sake of being themselves and using that as motivation to try and beat teams that are still alive.”
Manchester (43-18-8 for 94 points) remains atop the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead of Springfield with seven games remaining for each team.
The Monarchs need nine points to claim the Atlantic Division crown, by some combination of their own wins or St. John’s IceCaps’ losses.
The fight with Springfield for home ice advantage all the way to the Eastern Conference finals will likely go down to the wire. Meanwhile, Texas has 95 points to hold the top spot in the Western Conference and home ice all the way.
As for this weekend’s opponents, Hartford comes in at 30-31-7 for 67 points, 10 points out of the final playoff spot.
Portland is already out of the playoff race, but the Pirates have proven they love to play spoiler. Portland defeated Manchester 7-5 in Lewiston, Maine, last weekend.
“That last outing was not a pretty result. We started great and things dissipated in the second period when we got ourselves into penalty problems,” Morris said. “Hopefully, we’ll be sharper and learn from the setback and return to a more predictable and steady style of play.”
Worcester (34-30-4, 72) is just five points out of the playoffs, so the Sharks will be out for blood Sunday.
Manchester will be without one of its top defenseman in Vinny LoVerde (lower body injury), who is expected back knext week. Londonderry’s Ian O’Connor (lower body) is out for a couple more weeks.
Newly signed and fresh out of college, Hobey Baker Award finalist Nic Dowd (St. Cloud State) and Michael Mersch (Wisconsin) could make their pro debuts this weekend.
Saturday’s game might feature rookie goalie Patrik Bartosak’s first AHL start as well. He mopped up for J.F. Berube in the loss to Portland. Morris said Berube deserved a rest of at least one game this weekend.
“J.F. is deserving of his role as our starter. I don’t see any need to change too much other than to give him a little rest from time to time,” Morris said. “It’s a great opportunity for (Bartosak) to get a start and know it’s his game. From a competitive standpoint, I’m sure he’s looking for an opportunity to get a win under his belt.”