Shortly before departing for Portland, Maine, on a two-hour trip across NH-101 and up Interstate 95, second year AHL forward Nick Shore
was asked to reflect on his season, the first in which he spent meaningful amounts of time in the National Hockey League. His quick conclusion? It’s incomplete.
“At this point, it’s way too early to be looking back on the season,” he said. “We have a lot of hockey left here.”
And so he does – probably. After a 34-game performance with the Los Angeles Kings in which he scored his first career goal at Nassau Coliseum in a 3-2 Kings win in March, Shore was assigned to the Monarchs to assist in the top-seeded AHL club’s push throughout the Calder Cup Playoffs. At times, especially over the last week, that has been some hard pushin’; Manchester dropped both road games in the first round series to set up a winner-take-all Game 5 on Saturday night at home. Given that the club amassed a league-best 109 points in the regular season to claim home ice advantage through the playoffs, and that there are experienced players who have been together for a long time, confidence and focus are high late in a series that has extended past any supposed comfort level.
“I think we’ve become accustomed to playing a team we played 12 times in the regular season,” Shore said. “At the same time, it’s a one-eight matchup, but Portland is a really good team over here. We knew it was going to be a real good challenge for us.”
Instead of centering Dustin Brown and Trevor Lewis, as he did when he scored his first NHL goal, a boot redirection of a Brown centering feed past Jaroslav Halak, he’s centering Brian O’Neill and Michael Mersch. O’Neill was the AHL’s regular season leading scorer and MVP, and Mersch, who came on strong over the second half of the season, now has 14 goals, 26 points, a plus-19 rating and 86 shots on goal in the last 23 regular season and playoff games.
An improvement over Thursday’s loss will be needed from the trio, which was a combined minus-six in the Pirates’ 5-0 shutout. Considering the success that the group has engineered throughout the entire season, they’ll be well equipped and prepared for Saturday night’s big tilt.
“I still think we haven’t seen the best of Shoresy yet,” Monarchs coach Mike Stothers said. “And by no means am I disappointed in his play, I just know that he’s the type of kid that he’s so smart and he figures things out. He comes back from the NHL and he knows he’s going to be a target from the opposition. They’re going to take away his time and space and make plays difficult on him, and they’ve been hard on him. They’ve been punishing him, and so they should.”
It was expected that Shore would return to Manchester upon the completion of the Kings’ season, and he did so, after a brief delay in which he was tested for mononucleosis (the results came back negative).
“I’m not sure what the final diagnosis was, I just knew I was cleared and got to get back,” the center said.
That places him alongside a pair of capable offensive pieces who have built a strong chemistry together as they’ve strived to generate looks off the cycle.
“We’ve just been trying to get pucks in deep, trying to grind them down a little bit in the offensive zone and hopefully chances come from that,” Shore said. “I think whatever line is out there, we’re confident with the group of guys that we have.”
“As a line, I think your focus is to always be clean in your zone. Be good in the neutral zone, get some offensive chances from that. Anything we can do to contribute to a win tonight is what we want to do.”
And that goes for the Monarchs’ standout center depth, as well. With Shore’s return, Manchester is stacked down the center of the lineup with players under contract to the Kings.
“A lot of the focus is on [Shore], but I think the good thing for us is we have him, we have [Jordan] Weal, we have [Nic] Dowd, and we have [Andrew] Crescenzi down the middle,” Stothers said. “It doesn’t have to be all just one guy. I think as the playoffs go, and hopefully they go a real long time … I think we’ll see Shoresy’s game improve again by leaps and bounds just because he’s so intelligent and has such a good hockey sense to figure things out.”
Shore appears to speak for many members of the club and those within Los Angeles’ hockey operations when he articulated the players’ “buy-in” under Stothers, who joined the organization in the summer of 2014 and was named the AHL’s Coach of the Year at the conclusion of the regular season.
“Stuts has been great all year,” Shore said. “He definitely has every guy on the team on the same page. We all know what he demands of us and what we need to give him. I think from that standpoint, he’s been great. Obviously he’s been the coach of the year for the regular season. I think you can go around the locker room and everyone has something good to say about Stutsy. He lets you know what’s expected of you and that’s what you’ve got to give him.”
The mantra of the Kings’ dressing room has trickled down: there is deference to the collective over the individual, to team goals over personal glory.
“I think there’s one focus, and for me, it’s the entire team,” Shore said. “Right now, we’re focused on winning a big game … and moving on. So from that standpoint, there certainly hasn’t been change and I think everyone is focused on the same thing.”
With the margin for error thinned, and the 82 saves on 87 shots made by talented Portland goalie Louis Domingue acknowledged, the Monarchs will need to rebound in the final game of a first round series that all of a sudden has gone the distance. While the book has been closed on Nick Shore’s 2014-15 Los Angeles Kings performance, there are still chapters waiting to be written in his Manchester Monarchs composition.
“It’s a great group of guys and for the most part, I’ve been with them for the better part of a year and a half with last year and obviously most of this year,” Shore said. “It’s a great group of guys and it’s good to be back and we’re just looking to keep things going.”