So I posted the following item on the Lake Erie Monsters Backers Facebook page on Saturday:
As I sit here in Dunkin Donuts enjoying a free iced coffee from last night's win, I'm thinking about the Monsters' offense. Or lack of it. In the seven games since we put up seven goals on Manitoba, we've scored a grand total of 10 goals. And we've been shut out three times. An average of less than 1.5 goals/game isn't going to cut it.
Now, I realize there are certain factors at play here:
- We don't have Rychel, Anderson, Milano, etc.
- You could argue that Bjorkstrand and Hannikainen are both still looking for their rhythm after returning from injury (though Bjorkstrand has been scoring).
- We've faced some good competition over that stretch.
- The officiating today was less than perfect.
But you know what? The best teams in the AHL always seem to find a way to overcome those things. And I'd like to think we can and should compete with the best teams the league has to offer.
The reality of this 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters team, I think, is that while we have some wonderful talent at the top, there isn't as much depth as we were led to believe. We've played more games than anyone in the Central Division, and the only two teams with fewer goals than we have are the two teams at the bottom of the division: Manitoba and Iowa.
All of that said, if and when we get our guys back (which I assume might not happen until April after Columbus is finished), we'll have the pieces to make a nice postseason run. There's some good chemistry there. There just isn't a whole bunch of guys who have that ability to finish.
Maybe I expected more. Maybe I'm just overreacting to a tough stretch. But the offense has been a concern for me since the season began. I hope they prove me wrong.
In the comment section I added the fact that this is a young Monsters team, and perhaps the expectations for them were set a bit high.
Still, that's essentially where Lake Erie stands right now. They're a good team, but they're also a fifth-place team in a tough division that – much like the NBA team that occupies Quicken Loans Arena with them – has been inconsistent when facing top competition.
What happens once the Monsters' roster starts to look a little more like it did when they opened the season back in October remains to be seen. But it's fair to ask whether a playoff berth is even in the cards for them if the Blue Jackets keep the likes of Kerby Rychel, Josh Anderson (who was actually sent back to Cleveland yesterday) and Justin Falk for an extended period.
That's not to mention the fact that both Monsters goalies, Jonas Koorpisalo and Anton Forsberg, are also currently plying their trade in Columbus. But goaltending hasn't been the problem. ECHL call-up Brad Thiessen has been absolutely solid between the pipes in the absence of the top two netminders.
The problem, as mentioned above, is an inability to score. Is that youth? Is is a lack of depth? Is it an organizational penchant for forwards who do a lot of little things well but have trouble doing the one thing that will most likely advance their careers?
I wish I could tell you. The Monsters are a good team that feels like it should be great. Is that such a bad thing for the Jackets to have at the AHL level? I could argue either way, but as we've said before, building a winning culture in the minors eventually bubbles up to the NHL level. And I'm sure the Columbus brass would love to see the youngsters racking up more goals and wins as they look for ways to get the Jackets back onto solid footing.
We should also point out here that it's not like the Monsters are getting blown out. On the contrary, they're playing some close games and often coming up short. It just feels like some of those games shouldn't be quite so close. Does that make sense?
Here, let me quickly take you through Lake Erie's 1-2-1-0 week and give you a sense of what I mean:
Monday, January 18
Rockford Ice Hogs 3, Lake Erie 1
OK, this was at the tail end of an exhausting 10-game road trip. It was a Monday afternoon game in Rockford, Illinois. The Monsters were undoubtedly tired and ready to get themselves back to Cleveland. Which I get. But the reality is this: Too bad. The schedule is what it is, and Rockford is what it is. Which is to say, the first-place team in the division. You deal with it.
Oliver Bjorkstrand had the lone Monsters goal as Lake Erie failed to deal with it. They kept it close, and give them credit. But you know, there is no "close" column in the AHL standings. You win or you lose, and Lake Erie lost. Forsberg was pretty good in defeat, giving up only two goals (the third Ice Hogs' score was an empty-netter). It's the kind of game you put behind you so you can get back home and regroup. Which the Monsters sort of did...
Wednesday, January 20
Grand Rapids Griffins 3, Lake Erie 2 (OT)
The fact that this game even went to overtime is actually a testament to the Monsters' tenacity. They honestly weren't very good for long stretches of this one, failing to take care of the puck and commiting turnover after turnover against a Grand Rapids team that has been tough to beat lately. The Griffins' game-winner came on one of those turnovers and almost seemed inevitable.
Bjorkstrand once again provided all of the offense, scoring both Monsters goals. This kid is good. I really do think he has yet to hit his stride since coming back from injury. And when he does, he'll be something. But it should be noted that the guy who commited the turnover on Grand Rapids' overtime goal was...Bjorkstrand. It happens.
By the way, the three Monsters who have most impressed me lately are Bjorkstrand, Alex Broadhurst and Trent Vogelhuber. They offer hope for a better and more consistent second half of the season. Vogelhuber, in particular, is one heck of a penalty killer. He works hard and has been a very deserving alternate captain of late.
Friday, January 22
Lake Erie 2, Milwaukee Admirals 1 (OT)
The Admirals are an extremely frustrating team to play against. They block shots and clog passing lanes as well as any team the Monsters have faced this season. Add to that the fact that they have the young Czech prospect Marek Mazanec in goal and they're even tougher to beat.
For the first 20 minutes, the Monsters looked a lot like they did two nights earlier against Grand Rapids: Strangely lackadaisical and careless. They were lucky to be trailing only 1-0 on a goal by former Lake Erie defenseman Stefan Elliott.
But they came out with much more pep in their step and largely owned the second period, though they had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard until the final 10 seconds of the period. Defenseman and NHL veteran Steve Eminger, newly signed by Lake Erie on a tryout contract, popped in a goal to tie it at 1. Eminger is attempting a comeback and was playing his first pro hockey game since last season, when he recorded 62 games with the AHL's Providence Bruins. Eminger, you may recall, has been around the block a time or two. The 32-year-old has had stops with the Capitals, Flyers, Lightning, Panthers, Ducks and Rangers, in addition to various AHL affiliates.
Anyway, the goal sparked the Monsters, who played a tight-checking and scoreless third period and then allowed Milwaukee to possess the puck for most of the 3-on-3 overtime before getting their bearings. That was when Markus Hannikainen, recently sent down, centered a feed from the base of the left circle to a rushing Michael Chaput, who wired the puck off the arm of Mazanec and into the net for a very satisfying (and needed) win. Well done all around on that play, boys.
Saturday, January 23
Milwaukee Admirals 1, Lake Erie 0
The two teams met less than 24 hours later in an afternoon affair hours before the Cleveland Cavaliers were to take on the Chicago Bulls in a nationally televised game at the Q. And while the Monsters gave a nice effort and hit a post or two, you never got the feeling that they were going to beat Mazanec in this one. Thiessen kept them in the game and they blocked a lot of Milwaukee shots, but the forwards couldn't mount any sustained pressure. That's concerning when you're at home against a team directly ahead of you in the division. And you have to believe that Coach Jared Bednar and his assistants will be working on it this week in practice. (They might want to start with breakout drills. I can't tell you how many passes out of the zone are either put into guys' skates or are well executed but somehow still slip off the forwards' sticks.)
Lake Erie gets some time off before hosting the Texas Stars (Dallas affiliate) for two games this Friday and Saturday to close out the month of January.