From the start the American Hockey League season, the Manchester Monarchs have been a force to be reckoned with.
They had 109 points, the most in the league, and the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings hasn't slowed down in the playoffs, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2010. The Monarchs have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series against the Hartford Wolf Pack, AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers; Game 2 is Saturday.
Jordan Weal, a third-round pick (No. 70) by the Kings in the 2010 NHL Draft, has been an instrumental part of the Monarchs' success. His 69 points were third in the league in the regular season; in the playoffs he has 10 goals and a league-high 15 points.
"These first two series have been really hard battles and kind of two different dynamics," Weal said prior to the start of the conference final. "It was a big rivalry against Portland [in the first round], and then it was more of a systematic series against Wilkes-Barre [in the second round]. Whoever we play, I don't think it’s going to change our game."
Manchester Monarchs forward Jordan Weal (10 goals, league-high 15 points) has been an instrumental part in the team's success in the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. (Photo: Steve Babineau)
The Monarchs took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 first-round series against the Portland Pirates but the Pirates won the next two to force a Game 5 that the Monarchs won 5-3. The Monarchs beat the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in five games in the best-of-7 second round.
Mike Stothers is in his first season behind the Manchester bench. He previously worked in the league as coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins (2007-08) and as an assistant coach with the Hershey Bears (1991-96) and Philadelphia Phantoms (1996-2000).
He might not have known much about the Monarchs' roster entering the season, but his knowledge of Weal's offensive prowess was deep. In 2011-12, the first of Stothers' two seasons as coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League was Weal's final season starring in the league for the Regina Pats.
"He was pretty much the individual that you designed your whole game plan around," Stothers said. "He was that good. He made things happen. He's continued to do in pro what he did in junior. He's competitive, he's fearless, and he wants to be the best. Right now he's playing like he wants to be a man playing in the NHL next year."
Weal, 23, has 173 points in 221 regular-season games spanning parts of three seasons with the Monarchs. Stothers said there's not much left for Weal to prove at the AHL level. Weal earned his first NHL call-up April 10, but did not get into the Kings' final game of the regular season the next day.
"They have a great team up there and it's really a great organization," Weal said of the Kings. "I can't ask for more. They've given me lots of opportunity to play pro and get drafted and I think I'm ready to take the next step and play with them. But you never know. It's tough to crack a team like that."
Weal moved into more of a leadership role this season. The core of the leadership group is described by Weal and Stothers as a community effort, and Weal's approach to the game resonates with his teammates.
"The best thing for Weal is that his teammates know what he's capable of and what he's going to bring every night," Stothers said. "That and his preparation and the detail in his game certainly set a good example and [he] is a really good, positive role model. He's got some very talented teammates that help him and he helps them."
The Monarchs have advanced as far as they have by scoring early in games. Seven times they've scored the game's first goal within the first 2:07 of play, and three of Weal's 10 goals have come in the first period. That includes the first goal of his hat trick in Game 4 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Weal plays a focused game, and the skill set and hockey IQ Stothers likes is apparent whenever he steps onto the ice or makes a play for one of his teammates.
As the Monarchs look to advance to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time, Weal continues to fine-tune his game, playing with a quiet confidence that seems poised to help him earn a spot with the Kings.
"Hockey is a game that always is changing," Weal said. "As you go from junior to pro there’s things you can and can't get away with anymore. I think it's just a matter of figuring those things out and playing with confidence. When you have that confidence and you know you can play at a certain level, you're going to be fine because this game is a lot of mental work."
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