Three months ago, the prospects of the expansion Greensboro Monarchs beating the Virginia Lancers three out of four games were remote, maybe even nil.
But one week into the East Coast Hockey League playoffs, the Lancers, once the mightiest team in the league, are home for good. The Monarchs are in the Final Four, if you will.Greensboro's 4-3 win over Virginia Wednesday night in the fourth game of the first-round playoff series eliminated the team that dominated the ECHL for three months this year. At one point, Virginia was on the verge of running away with the title. Greensboro, which lost seven of eight to the Lancers during the regular season, has sent them home to run another day.
The Monarchs must now wait until tonight's Erie-Hampton Roads series is decided to see which road they take Saturday. If Erie wins tonight, the second round, two-out-of-three series will begin in Erie.
If Hampton Roads wins, the Admirals will come to Greensboro to take on the Monarchs Saturday night. Either way, there will also be a game Sunday and another either Tuesday or Wednesday to decide one of the two teams that will play for the league title.
The winner of the best-of-three series will play the winner of the series between Nashville and Winston-Salem, which the Thunderbirds lead 3-1 in a best-of-seven playoff.
The scrambled playoff format, and the uncertainty of its next opponent, has Greensboro on a fence right now. The Monarchs must prepare for two teams in anticipation of the second round.
``We'll play the same way no matter which team we play,' said Monarchs coach Jeff Bruabker. ``At this point of the season, you concentrate on what you're doing, not so much what the other team is doing. We're just hanging loose right now. We don't even know what we're going to do yet. We just want to be ready to win.'
Win or lose, the Monarchs' first season in the ECHL must be considered a success. After tonight, only three teams will remain, and they'll be one. Brubaker might be impressed by that a year from now, but for the moment, he is far from satisfied.
``I won't be satisfied until we win the championship,' Bruabker said. ``You don't play just to advance to the second round. You play to win the whole thing. That's still what we plan to do. That has been the goal all season.'
The Monarchs jumped a huge hurdle Wednesday night by beating Virginia, a charter member in the ECHL and its predecessors (Atlantic Coast Hockey League and All-American Hockey League). To win a league title, you must first beat Virginia then deal with Winston-Salem, the only other charter member to have operated in all three southern leagues. The win Wednesday averted another trip to Virginia, where things deteriorated in Game 2 of the series. The Monarchs lost that game in double overtime and lost two players to suspensions after a post-game brawl.
``We weren't looking forward to going back to the Roanoke Valley,' Brubaker said. ``It's a lovely place, but....'
It's also a hockey vacuum that has been known to swallow up teams player by player. The fans there are notorious. The old wars between the Lancers and the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds are legendary. The Virginia State Patrol once had to escort the T-Birds team bus back across the state line after one game.
In another, there were so many Winston-Salem players in the Salem, Va., jail on assault charges that the T-Birds started a game against the Lancers with 10 players in uniform. As the game wore on, and players were relased from jail, the T-Birds were able to field an entire team.
In that respect, the Monarchs were lucky to return home with their entire roster, although two had been suspended and one was on a warrant for assualt with a hockey stick.
The prospects of going to either Hampton Roads or Erie are calmer in comparison, but beating either team will be no easy task. The Monarchs have played both Hampton Roads and Erie on even terms all season. And waiting in the wings, of course, will likely be Winston-Salem, which has been in a league title series seven of the last eight years.
The possibility of an ``I-40 Series' championship is exciting for all involved. The teams genuinely dislike one another, but the players and the fans have a grudging respect for eachother. It has been the best rivalry all season in the ECHL and it would be a fitting end to a great season for both franchises.
But that is somewhere down the road. First, the Monarchs must wait out tonight's Erie-Hampton Roads final then they must win two more games to get to Winston-Salem. The Monarchs don't know what road they will have to take to reach the finals. But as long as it doesn't go through Virginia, they can sleep a little easier.