We here in Cleveland realize how our friends down in Columbus (and elsewhere) who root for the Blue Jackets may be a tad depressed these days, what with all the losing and everything. Trust us, we invented losing. Losing is the one thing at which Cleveland sports teams can claim to be champions. We're as innovative in the losing department as anyone.
Which is why the Lake Erie Monsters' status as one of the AHL's best teams nearly one third into the season is a little jarring to those of us who pay attention to the local minor league hockey team. The young but talented Monsters are 15-6-1-2, including a sparkling 9-1-0-2 at Quicken Loans Arena. We noted last week that many of those victories had come against some of the AHL's also-rans, but the two wins Lake Erie claimed this past weekend over the perennially tough Chicago Wolves are the stuff from which deep playoff runs are built.
The Monsters play in the AHL's competitive Midwest Division. If they're going to establish themselves as one of the teams to beat in the league, they must learn how to win in what is sure to be a long string of close games against divisional opponents. That's why the two one-goal victories over Chicago were so notable.
So why should Blue Jackets fans care? Because, regardless of what certain NHL front offices may think, building a winning culture at the minor league level matters. Guys who learn early in their careers how to battle through a tough schedule or a nagging injury or any number of things that can derail a team are guys who will know how to apply those skills later when it really matters.
That is, guys who know how to win.
Lake Erie benefited greatly from having some of its biggest weapons returned from Columbus, including Kerby Rychel, Michael Chaput and Justin Falk. The recent signings of Manny Malhotra and Jan Hejda to player tryout contracts also bode well. Yes, they lost goaltender Joonas Korpisalo to an emergency recall after Sergei Bobrovsky sustained a lower-body injury, but Anton Forsberg is more than capable of carrying the load, and veteran Brad Thiessen, recalled from the ECHL to take Korpisalo's roster spot, is a solid AHL back-up.
So, for now at least, things are looking up in Monster-land...which means down the line, they could very well be looking up in Blue Jackets-land, too. Here's a look back at the two victories over Chicago:
Friday, December 11
Lake Erie 4, Chicago Wolves 3
This first of eight head-to-head meetings between the Monsters and Wolves this season marked Teddy Bear Toss Night at the Q. And the home crowd only had to wait 37 seconds into the game before they got a chance to lob their stuffed animals (more than 1,400 in all) onto ice. Josh Anderson fed a streaking Rychel at the goalmouth, and Rychel was able to get just enough stick on it to get the puck under and past Chicago goalie Jordan Binnington.
The Monsters would go on to build a 3-0 lead on subsequent goals from Daniel Zaar and Anderson (Anderson finished with two goals and an assist and was named first star of the game). The Wolves, perhaps not surprisingly given their talent, never quit and got themselves within a goal when they scored with 17 seconds to play and Binnington pulled for the extra skater. But Forsberg and Co. were able to hang on for the 'W.' The lesson for Lake Erie is that almost none of the wins they garner within the division are going to come easily this season.
T.J. Tynan had two assists in the game and now leads Lake Erie in scoring with 16 points – all on assists. Someone needs to work on getting the red-headed centerman from Orland Park, Illinois, a goal sometime soon, though the Monsters are surely happy with his playmaking abilities thus far.
The game marked the return of Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was back in the lineup after missing 16 games to injury. The highly touted Danish prospect had an inauspicious night, going scoreless and finding himself on the ice for two Chicago goals. But as we'll see in a minute, it didn't take long for Bjorkstrand to get onto the stat sheet...
Saturday, December 12
Lake Erie 2, Chicago Wolves 1
Before we get to the game itself, can I say how much I enjoy some of the names on Chicago's roster? Their starting goalie Saturday was Pheonix Copley (and yes, Pheonix is how it's spelled). They also have Scooter Vaughan (who I believed played shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 40s), Konrad Abeltshauser, Eriah Hayes, Ty Rattie and Ivan Barbashev. Oh, and do you know where Pheonix Copley was born? North Pole, Alaska, apparently. That's outstanding.
Anyway, all of those guys played Saturday in what turned out to be a tight-checking, playoff-like game in front of 11,127 Cleveland hockey fans on the Monsters' Star Wars Night. Lake Erie wore some pretty sweet, Stormtrooper-themed sweaters that were auctioned off after the game to benefit Toys for Tots.
The game was scoreless until the final minute of the first period, when Bjorkstrand decided he had waited long enough to make an impact. Bjorkstrand took the puck at the right point, cut into the middle and stickhandled past two defenders before snapping home a wrist shot top shelf for a 1-0 Lake Erie lead. It was the kind of skillful play that makes you think there are a lot of those types of goals in Bjorkstrand's future.
Zaar made it 2-0 when he forced a Chicago turnover near the Lake Erie blue line, zoomed down the right side of the ice and found the back of the net with a shot from the circle for his team-leading seventh goal of the season.
Wait, is that right? Is Daniel Zaar leading the Monsters in goals? Apparently he is. There's no way I would have known that had I not just looked it up. I feel like we haven't talked enough about Zaar this season, but the Swedish kid is good. He was a sixth-round draft pick of Columbus in 2012 and has been playing in his native country for the last few years until making the move to North America this past summer. Zaar is fast and he plays well in his own zone in addition to having the goal-scoring touch he has displayed so far. Keep an eye on him.
Chicago had most of the scoring chances in the third period, but Lake Erie gamely fought them off. The Wolves pulled Copley in the final minute in a desperate attempt to tie it, but Malhotra cleanly won a defensive-zone faceoff with three seconds to play that iced the victory. Good stuff.
By the way, Hejda made his Monsters debut in this one and was solid. He does the kind of veteran, non-scoresheet things that win games and hopefully rub off on the younger guys on the roster.
COMING UP THIS WEEK
Lake Erie has three division games this week, starting Wednesday when they host Grand Rapids. Then it's a trip south to Charlotte, North Carolina, for games Saturday night and Sunday aftenroon against the Checkers, who are affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Monsters are 1-0-0-1 against Charlotte this season, while their record against Grand Rapids is 2-1-1-0.