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On the Monsters Beat: Lake Erie vaults into first-place tie

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Monsters turn in solid all-around three-game effort to grab a share of lead in tough division

The Monsters' Markus Hannikainen, shown here playing in his native Finland, earned a call-up to Columbus with his strong play.
The Monsters' Markus Hannikainen, shown here playing in his native Finland, earned a call-up to Columbus with his strong play.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

They answer, for the moment at least, to "your FIRST-PLACE Lake Erie Monsters," thank you very much.

Lake Erie's week consisted of a home-ice sweep of the Manitoba Moose and a road overtime loss to the suddenly resurgent Grand Rapids Griffins. All of which combined to put the Monsters into a first-place tie atop the AHL's competitive Central Division.

What's more, the Monsters have excelled in virtually all phases of the game  their recent power-play woes excepted  and have received contributions from all areas of the ice.

Lake Erie (12-4-1-2) has weathered a steady drumbeat of call-ups to the Blue Jackets, the most recent of which saw Finnish forward Markus Hannikainen join Columbus in St. Louis on Saturday and play several shifts before being injured. Through it all, the prospects have continued to play the type of hockey that makes for deep postseason runs in the AHL.

Though maybe we get ahead of ourselves. It's only November, and granted, Lake Erie has feasted largely on Western Conference bottom-feeders to date. Still, beating the teams you're supposed to beat is the hallmark of a solid hockey club, so the Monsters will take the points wherever they can get them.

Here's our every-Monday-morning look back at the week that was for Lake Erie:

GAME RECAPS
Wednesday, November 25
Lake Erie 4, Manitoba Moose 2

The Monsters controlled this one early, scoring just two minutes into the game when a streaking Sonny Milano charged down the left wing and centered the puck to Hannikainen, who tipped it home on the doorstep for the early 1-0 advantage. Hannikainen would go on to score again later and was named first star. More importantly, he earned the well-deserved call-up to Columbus, having tallied 5 goals and 6 assists in 17 games for Lake Erie this season. Hannikainen has great puck skills that will presumably only get better as the year goes on. A fun kid to watch.

Michael Paliotta had two assists in the game and has become an important part of the Monsters' attack. He leads all Lake Erie defensemen with nine points and is looking much better (and far more engaged) than he did early in the season.

Speaking of defensemen, Dean Kukan got his second goal on a long wrist shot in the second period that found its way through traffic and beat Manitoba goalie Eric Comrie high to the far side. Kukan's goal came just 35 seconds after Daniel Zaar potted his fifth of the year and gave the Monsters a 3-0 advantage.

Anton Forsberg made 23 saves and improved his home record to a sparkling 4-0-0. Before the game, Coach Jared Bednar told a group of Lake Erie season ticket holders how delighted he and his staff have been with the play of both Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo. Right now, Bednar is simply alternating the two and enjoying the results, which is an enviable position to be in if you're a coach at any level.

Friday, November 27
Lake Erie 4, Manitoba Moose 1

Lake Erie ran its season record against Manitoba to 4-0 by overcoming an early deficit and some first-period penalty troubles. Two Monsters (Nick Moutrey and Oleg Yevenko) where whistled for instigator penalties in the opening frame. And in Yevenko's case, the associated fighting major was assessed only to him and not the poor sap from Manitoba on whom he pounded for several seconds. That meant the Monsters had to kill off five minutes of penalty time, which they did with relative ease.

By the way, that was two fights in two games for Yevenko, who on Wednesday was challenged by Moose forward Scott Kosmachuk after Yevenko boarded a Manitoba player. Yevenko accepted the challenge and, as per usual, used his considerable reach advantage to land several right hands to Kosamachuk's noggin before the linesmen mercifully stepped in and broke it up.

When Yevenko fights, I like to imagine him narrating the scrap in the third person using a thick Belarusian accent ("Oleg will hit you NOW. Now Oleg will wait. Oleg will hit you AGAIN. And now Oleg waits. Oleg will hit you A THIRD TIME. And so Oleg has defeated you in combat, though you have fought valiantly.") But as always, I'm sure that's just me.

Anyway, Paliotta had two more assists in this one, while Milano recorded a goal and an assist to get first-star honors. Milano shows up to play every game and is putting together a very solid season thus far. Blue Jackets fans who are interested in his development (i.e., every one of you) can rest assured that it's all coming together for the Massapequa, NY, native  TRIVIA TIME: I think that's where Jerry Seinfeld grew up, too  though it's probably in everyone's best interest if Columbus allows him to develop a while longer in the minors. He still has to smooth out some rough edges to his game, but then again, let's not forget HE'S ONLY 19 YEARS OLD.

Moutrey, Michael Chaput and captain Ryan Craig also found the back of the net for Lake Erie in this one. Moutrey's goal was his first as a professional and the Monsters' first power-play tally in seven games. In net, it was Korpisalo taking the victory after stopping 24 of 25 Moose shots. Entering yesterday's games, Korpisalo led the AHL in SAV% (.941!) and was second in GAA (1.80).

Saturday, November 28
Grand Rapids 3, Lake Erie 2 (OT)

Lake Erie won both ends of a two-game set against Grand Rapids earlier in November in Cleveland, but this is suddenly not the same Grand Rapids team. The Griffins, recently reinforced by the parent Detroit Red Wings, came in having won five in a row, including a 6-0 rout of division-leading Milwaukee (which itself had won 10 in a row coming into that game).

The Monsters fought back from an early 1-0 deficit to take a 2-1 lead on goals from Moutrey and Trent Vogelhuber. But the Griffins got one past Forsberg two minutes into the 3-on-3 overtime period to grab the extra point and extend their winning streak to six.

Interesting statistical note: Center T.J. Tynan notched an assist in the game and leads Lake Erie with 13 assists this season, but he has yet to score a goal.

NEWS AND NOTES

  • Defenseman Jaime Sifers had two assists in the three games and leads Lake Erie with a plus-6 rating.
  • Yevenko took over the team lead in PIMs from Brett Gallant as he now has 71. Gallant, who played previously in Bridgeport in the Islanders' organization, is finding there to be fewer willing fighters in the Western Conference than he was used to in the East. Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, there are more heavyweights who can match up with Gallant in the league's Eastern Conference.
  • The Monsters play three games in three nights this coming Thursday through Saturday, hosting the Iowa Wild (of course) on Thursday and Friday before traveling back to Grand Rapids for another match-up at Van Andel Arena on Saturday evening.