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by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings

By Kim Mueller, special to

At the beginning of every season, the Manchester Monarchs (the Kings AHL affiliate) join the Los Angeles Kings out here in California for training camp, with both the team personnel and fans thinking, “Could this be the year?” With new personnel in Los Angeles, a new coaching staff in Manchester and a plethora of new faces in the locker room, a lot was left unknown.

The Monarchs hit the ice on Oct. 7 and collected their first win of the season with a 5-4 shootout victory against the Worcester Sharks. Unfortunately, the team went on to win only eight of their first 20 games. The phrase of “Could this be the year?” was still in everyone’s mind but not with the confidence it had just a few months earlier.

Head Coach Mark Morris and Assistant Coach Scott Pellerin were putting systems in place that did not immediately take, but over the span of 80 games have become a science on the ice. With 31 players on the Monarchs roster on the same page, hockey personnel and fans look to the post-season thinking “Could this be the year?”

With a sub-500 start to the season, the Monarchs began to climb the Atlantic Division ladder. They reached the coveted first place spot on Dec. 27 and have never looked back. Manchester tied the franchise record for the longest home streak without a regulation loss at 14 games (Nov. 12 – Jan. 12) and also went on a 12-game winning streak from Jan. 15 to Feb. 11, one shy of the all-time record of 13 wins during the 2004-05 season. At the end of the regular season, Manchester had won its second Atlantic Division title and tied the franchise record for both wins in a season (51) and points (110) in a season. Heading into the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs with a best-of-seven series against the Worcester Sharks, a team the Monarchs are 6-4-0-0 against this season, one must ponder, “Could this be the year the Monarchs make it past the first round?”

During the 2004-05 season, Manchester watched NHL talent day-in and day-out play at the Verizon Wireless Arena. Seven players from that season’s roster are now regulars in the NHL. Many records for the Monarchs were broken in the lockout season, but now Manchester has seen those feats equalized or surpassed by the 2006-07 team.

Left wing Noah Clarke has been a member of the Monarchs since April 3, 2003, and is a leader both on and off the ice in Manchester. Playing in 267 games over parts of five seasons, the 5-foot-9, 192-pound native of LaVerne, Calif., holds Monarchs records for goals (85), points (199) and power play goals (29). Clarke is also tied for first in the all-time assists category with center Steve Kelly with 114. Ranking second in games played (267) and shorthanded goals (seven), Clarke has gone from All-Star rookie to scoring leader.

A new addition to this year’s squad and a victim of circumstance is goaltender Jason LaBarbera. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound native of Burnaby, British Columbia, spent all but three games of the 2005-06 season with the Kings. With three healthy goaltenders in Los Angeles at the beginning of this season, LaBarbera cleared waivers and was sent to Manchester. When both Kings goaltenders were plagued with injury, personnel didn’t want to risk losing LaBarbera to another team if he did not clear waivers, so he spent the entire regular season with the Monarchs. In 62 appearances, the most by a Monarchs goaltender in one season, LaBarbera set franchise records for minutes played (3,618:11), wins (39), losses (20), saves (1,862) and saves in a game with 59 against his former club, the Hartford Wolf Pack, on Jan. 5. He also tied team records for the most consecutive appearances with 19 from Nov. 18 to Dec. 29 (tied with Travis Scott) and he tied for the highest save-percentage with netminder Adam Hauser. Both goaltenders have a save-percentage of .933 in the record books.

Not only did LaBarbera backstop the Monarchs to new franchise records, he led the American Hockey League in games played (62), minutes played (3,618:11), wins (39), saves (1862), shots against (1995) and save-percentage (.933). He also tied Omaha’s Curtis McElhinney for shutouts with seven and ranked fourth with a goals-against-average of 2.21.

LaBarbera was honored by the AHL as the league’s most outstanding goaltender with the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award and he received the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for the goaltender who allowed the fewest goals in the regular season.

With LaBarbera in net and the likes of Clarke, center Marty Murray, right wing Tim Jackman, center Patrick O’Sullivan, defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, defenseman Peter Harrold and newcomers center Trevor Lewis, defenseman Jeff Likens and center Brian Boyle, as well as everyone on the Monarchs roster, one can only wonder “Could this be the year?”

As the Monarchs personnel, coaches, players and fans take one game at a time as they did all season long, let’s remember the 80 games that have been completed this season and look forward to the 16 wins that stand between Manchester and the Calder Cup trophy.

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