Kevin Westgarth had 25 points in 76 games for Manchester this season. (Photo by Steve Babineau)
The Cup. It’s almost time to see it again.
It has been one heck of a playoffs and we’re down to two classic teams with arguably the most effective fans. This is what the other 10 months of the year are for. I definitely don’t need to tell anyone how fantastic the NHL playoffs have been. The upsets and close series are a perfect indicator playoffs are indeed a new season.
At one point, between the two conferences every seed was still alive: 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the West and 4, 6, 7, and 8 in the East. Wow. And a 3-0 comeback by a team that may end up with the Cup? That makes for good sports. Now I just wish I could stop tearing up every time they show those damned Stanley Cup commercials. D-Mac does it to me every time.
Leaving the Big Show, the American League has had its share of drama and breakout post-season performances as well. The most shocking team probably being my own Manchester Monarchs.
After stumbling through the second half of the schedule, we ended the season with an eight-game winning streak to secure third place in the endlessly competitive Atlantic Conference. Heading into our first series, we were hopeful, but wary, as we did not fare that well against our opponents, the Portland Pirates, during the year. However, most of the cogs that put us in first place by Christmas were either returning from injury or the NHL. We knew anything was possible, especially since we had the best goalie, and maybe most valuable player in the league, Jonathan Bernier on our side. In all honesty, we knew even one goal could get it done some nights.
We took down the Mighty Pirates in a sweep and our confidence grew. Still, heading into a series against the Worcester Sharks was once again a daunting task. After falling behind a game, we came roaring back and took them in six. It was a great series that saw some incredible play on both teams.
Unfortunately, during this series I was injured and had to watch from the sidelines after tearing my MCL in Game 2. To say watching from the sidelines during the playoffs is the worst thing in the world is hyperbolic, but not by much. To see some of the players on the other team become a little braver, or pull stunts they might not have if you were in the lineup is maddening, to say the least. We were extremely lucky to have toughness from top to bottom in Manchester – even our 20-year-old Russian, Slava Voinov, beat someone up this year, but I inevitably took it personally if anything happened to my teammates. I think I now understand how my parents felt watching me play. There’s no way to get rid of that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach from the stands. Sorry, Mom.
Next came the Big, Bad Hershey Bears; the best team in the AHL. I think we were a little unsure about what to expect and it showed in Game 1 when Hershey scored 16 seconds into the first period. Oops. But the boys stayed composed and came back to make it a game.
Game 2 saw a better effort, but inevitably, a loss in overtime. The best part was talking to the guys after that game, knowing we were on our way home. No one was down and no one was scared. We faced adversity all year and were ready for it. Two incredible wins later – the second a 1-0 Bernier special – and the series was tied. The Bears looked worn and weary, the only problem was they’re a veteran team built to win close games. When Games 5 and 6 looked well in hand for us, the Bears eked out some goals to take both in overtime, ending our fairytale. Damn it. Now I’m just torn between rooting against the team that beat us and wanting to lose to the Calder Cup champions.
That moment when the last game finishes to signal an end to your season never seems real. No matter what, there’s going to be a tomorrow, but tomorrow we’re no longer part of the same team. It’s over. And it still kills me.
After celebrating the season, we had to say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. That is difficult every year, but this year seemed a little different. Three years ago, I came to Manchester with a fresh crop of prospects, many of who have become the leaders of our Atlantic Division Championship team. This year things have changed as we realize it is the end of an era; many of us don’t know where we’re going to be playing next year. Playing and growing with these guys has seemed like another stint in college and this year we’re graduating. It has been an honor and a privilege to play with these guys and I can’t wait to see the things they do.
On a personal note, after an incredible season with the Monarchs, we saw perhaps one of the best playoff performances in history. Bud Holloway had six game-winning goals in our 10 wins, tying the playoff record. That includes all four in the Portland series, a record that will stand forever. He also had an assist on three of the other four game-winners, meaning he had nine game-winning points in our 10 wins. Buddy put a new (nicely bearded) face on clutch play.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t root for a former teammate of mine, Darroll Powe. ‘Power’ and I played together for four years at Princeton, graduating in ’07 with, arguably, the best class the school and hockey team had ever seen. He’s now a big part of the Philadelphia Flyers team vying for Lord Stanley’s Silver Dish. Given that the Kings are out and hoping ‘Hexy’ won’t mind…Go Flyers Go.
After that, it’s a long summer and I can’t wait for next year. The Kings are Koming.
Unfortunately, my literary pursuits have faltered recently, as I have been swept up in the playoffs and have been busy with crosswords when not watching games or doing rehab. In that vein, the Simon & Schuster collections are excellent and still the best.
Also, in the Philly vein, if you have a chance to watch the Broadstreet Bullies special by HBO, it is something else. It makes you a hockey fan all over again.
Keep your hands up and your chin down.
To find out more about L.A. Kings hockey, check out lakings.com.
Signed as a free agent out of Princeton, Kevin Westgarth is a 6-foot-5, 247 pound right wing prospect for the Los Angeles Kings. He played in his first nine NHL games during the 2008-09 season after spending parts of two seasons with Manchester of the American League. A native of Amherstburg, Ont., the 25-year-old Westgarth will blog throughout the season for THN.com. Click HERE to read his other entries.