The Lake Erie Monsters have lately found themselves facing real adversity for the first time this season.
Entering this past weekend, the Monsters had lost three games in a row and seven of their last 10. And waiting for them on the other side of the Christmas break were the Grand Rapids Griffins – the Red Wings' affiliate and owners of the longest win streak in professional hockey.
The Griffins ran that streak to 15 games when they dominated Lake Erie, 7-3, on Saturday at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. And when we say "dominated," we mean it in almost every sense of the word. It was probably the Monsters' worst performance of the year, and never once did it seem they were on the same plane as Grand Rapids in terms of skill and effort.
But less than 24 hours later, Lake Erie accomplished what no other team had managed to do in several weeks. They beat the Griffins, 3-2, to end the third-longest win streak in the history of the AHL, thanks largely to the kind of tenacity and grit that were in desparingly short supply Saturday.
The night-and-day effort was perplexing, but the Monsters did show they're willing to pay the price to compete with the league's top teams.
Some detail on the thrilling two-game set:
Saturday, December 26
Grand Rapids Griffins 7, Lake Erie 3
It took Grand Rapids all of 21 seconds to score on a bad defensive-zone turnover by the Monsters. And while Lake Erie did manage to tie it two minutes later on an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal, the Griffins went on to score three unanswered to make it a laugher.
Anton Forsberg was pulled from the Monsters' net after the fourth Grand Rapids goal (to be replaced by Brad Thiessen), but it was hardly Forsberg's fault. The Monsters played lackadaisically and were simply outskated and outworked almost from start to finish.
Josh Anderson and newly acquired Joe Devin had Lake Erie's other two goals. Devin, signed to a 25-game tryout contract last week after starting the season in the ECHL, converted a penalty shot when he wired a hard wrister past Grand Rapids goalie Jared Coreau. The shot was awarded when Grand Rapids was determined to have covered the puck with a hand in the crease.
But that was just about the only highlight on a night the Monsters would just as soon forget (playing in front of a season-high crowd of 12,957, no less). They were to face Grand Rapids again the following afternoon, and to a man they knew their effort would have to be exponentially better if they were to avoid being blown out of their own building again.
Sunday, December 27
Lake Erie 3, Grand Rapids Griffins 2
Just as the tone for Saturday's game was set early, it was apparent from the opening faceoff that Lake Erie was not going to make things easy for the Griffins this time around. The Monsters came out flying, outshooting Grand Rapids 15-6 in the opening period and building a 2-0 lead along the way.
Daniel Zaar potted his team-leading ninth goal of the season to open the scoring six minutes into the game. A streaking Zaar took a behind-the-back feed in front from Anderson, who himself got the puck on a sweet pass by Michael Chaput. It was one of those exactly-how-you-draw-it-up goals that end up on arena jumbotron highlight reels.
Eight minutes later, it was playmaker extraordinaire T.J. Tynan getting his team-high 19th assist when he found Jaime Sifers alone in the high slot, giving Sifers more than enough time and space to wind up and fire a bomb past Coreau.
Grand Rapids would get on the board with a deflection that eluded Forsberg in the second period, but it took Devin only 1:16 of the third to notch the game-winner. Kerby Rychel stole the puck on the end boards and centered a feed to an oncoming Devin, who popped it top-shelf over Coreau for a 3-1 Lake Erie advantage.
Grand Rapids would get another one with Coreau pulled late in the game, but Lake Erie managed to hang on to secure the win.
As the final horn sounded, Anderson engaged in a scrap with Grand Rapids' Andy Miele near the Griffins' net that quickly escalated into a near-line brawl. By the time the officials sorted through the carnage, there were 126 penalty minutes doled out to eight different players. That included game misconducts for secondary altercations and/or "fighting other than during periods of game" to Rychel and Sifers, and to Grand Rapids' Tyler Bertuzzi, Martin Frk and Xavier Ouellet.
Regardless of whether the AHL sees fits to apply supplemental discipline to any of the players involved, there's no doubt it could get wild the next time the two teams see each other on January 9 in Grand Rapids.
The end-of-game donneybrook included a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to Griffins' enforcer Joel Rechlicz, who chucked a bottle of Gatorade at Anderson from the bench. Earlier in the evening, Rechlicz and Monsters tough guy Brett Gallant engaged in an entertaining bit of fisticuffs that saw Gallant score a victory on points (that link also contains footage of the end-of-game brawl). The two combatants have gone at each other on multiple occasions, going back to the days when Gallant was playing in Bridgeport and Rechlicz was a member of the Hershey Bears.
Lake Erie plays its last home game for more than three weeks when it hosts the Toronto Marlies Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Monsters then kick off a 10-game road trip with a New Year's Eve contest in Toronto and weekend games in Milwaukee (Saturday) and Chicago (Sunday).