For a team that has dominated the American Hockey League from the start of the season, Saturday night will mark the Manchester Monarchs' first Calder Cup Final appearance in the franchise's 14-year history. Despite all the individual and team accolades, and the continued success in 2014-15, the top development affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings remains even-keeled, ready to take on anything.
"Whether we're up in a game or down in a game, everyone is still the same," Monarchs center Nick Shore said. "If we keep playing the way that we can, we still have a really good chance at the end of the night. It was a good series for us to sweep Hartford [in the conference finals] and that earned us the 10 days to rest and get ready for the next one."
After dispatching familiar foes in the Portland Pirates, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and Hartford Wolf Pack, "the next one" is the 2015 Calder Cup Final against the Utica Comets, a team that they haven't played this season.
Playing a team for the first time is always an adjustment. How they skate, how they check, how they battle is all brand new, often preventing the formation of a true plan of attack.
But the Monarchs aren't worried.
"Sometimes you think it's too much time off, or that the guys will get distracted, but they've been so good all year long about staying focused and dialed in," Manchester coach Mike Stothers said. "That's a tribute to them as a group and especially our leaders and veteran guys. They're excited."
"[Manchester's] had some good teams in the past, but this is something everyone waits for," he said. "You realize that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and sometimes you go your whole career without making it to the finals."
Games 1 and 2 are on Saturday and Sunday respectively, in Manchester before the series shifts to Utica. The best-of-seven series will be streamed at no charge on ahllive.com.
The return of center Nick Shore has been a boost for the Monarchs following a 34-game stay with the Kings in which he scored a goal and had seven points. In his second professional season, the 22-year-old made his NHL debut on Jan. 17, centering Dwight King and Jeff Carter in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
Shore had 20 goals, 22 assists and a plus-23 rating in 38 regular-season games with Manchester this season, and has 11 points in 14 playoff games. He also has a plus-13 rating in the postseason.
"He has a real high hockey IQ," Stothers said. "It's a rare thing that Nick has, in that you can just tell him, he nods, and he's got it. He's a quiet guy, but he's got a really good mind."
Like his older brother Drew (drafted No. 44 in 2009 by Florida) before him, and his younger brother Quentin (No. 168 in 2013 by Ottawa) after him, Nick (No. 82 in 2011 by Los Angeles) is a product of the U.S. National Team Development Program and the University of Denver. And one can only assume that Baker Shore, the youngest of the four brothers at 15, is well on his way to a future in pro hockey, too.
"It's been great growing up with three brothers, and especially with all of us playing hockey," Nick said. "We're all each other's biggest fans and try to watch as many of each other's games as we can. It's definitely nice always having that support system to fall back on."
Playing half a season in the AHL, Shore still finished second on the team in goals and sixth in points. He was named to the Eastern Conference roster for the All-Star Classic in January, but did not attend, instead skating on recall with the Kings. Drew Shore was selected to represent the Adirondack Flames.
"Nick's going to have a great career because of how intelligent he is on the ice," Stothers said. "It's just a matter of him getting comfortable because he is a little more quiet and shy. He's very respectful of the veterans. He doesn't come in there all brash and making bold predictions about what he can and can't do. He just lets his play do the talking."
Denver made NCAA tournament appearances in each of the three years Nick was there, but his current run with the Monarchs is his first true chance at capturing a championship. The opportunity is something he knows is special and a reflection of the hard work put in every day.
"[Los Angeles] was a really good experience for me and it definitely helps," Shore said. "You work all year to be able to play at this time. Being able to join these guys and having an opportunity to win the Calder Cup is just awesome. We have a really good group down here that has been together for a couple years so we're just excited to get it started and go from there."
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