A combined 25,269 fans showed up over the weekend for the Lake Erie Monsters' two-game AHL series against the San Antonio Rampage. That was partly because it's February, which begins the time of year when AHL teams tend to draw their largest crowds. It was also because Saturday was Cleveland Hockey Rocks Night, and the Monsters were giving away t-shirts adorned with the old NHL Cleveland Barons logo (as well as wearing vintage Barons jerseys of their own...see the photo above).
But largely – perhaps mostly – it was because the opponent was the Rampage, a team comprised substantially of players who up until this season had called Cleveland home when Lake Erie was affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche. Cleveland hockey fans, who are nothing if not loyal, gave their old friends a warm welcome both nights, which was nice to see.
Of course, in both games they also rooted for the boys who currently wear Monsters sweaters, and those boys almost managed to come away with a weekend sweep. In fact, they were two minutes away from doing just that before San Antonio pulled off a late rally Saturday and went on to take the extra standings point in a shootout.
Of note was the way the goalie situation played out. Presumably, the Lake Erie staff wanted Anton Forsberg to play Friday night and Brad Thiessen to be in net on Saturday. Forsberg did in fact start on Friday, but he was pulled late in the second period after giving up a third goal and not looking especially sharp in doing so. Thiessen came on in relief and didn't surrender a single goal, then played his heart out for 58 minutes on Saturday before the Rampage managed to put a pair of pucks behind him.
Forsberg, it seems, is a young goalie facing a confidence crisis right now. Have there been defensive miscues in front of him? Undoubtedly. But that happens to Thiessen, too, and more often than not, he somehow still manages to keep his team in the game. The only solution is to keep giving Forsberg ice time to allow him to work through his issues, be they technical, mental, or both.
Among skaters, some familiar names stood out. Michael Chaput scored twice Friday (including the game-winner), while Daniel Zaar potted a goal and recorded two assists. On Saturday it was the highly skilled Oliver Bjorkstrand delivering the first goal of the game, and surging defenseman John Ramage adding a shorthanded empty netter that seemed – for a few seconds anyway – to have sealed the deal for Lake Erie. Blueliner Dilon Heatherington chipped in with two assists on Friday.
Here's a quick look back at two wild games:
Friday, February 19
Lake Erie 4, San Antonio Rampage 3 (OT)
So let's get the rough stuff out of the way first. At the 2:10 mark of the opening period, two of the AHL's top heavyweights in Lake Erie's Brett Gallant and former Monster enforcer Patrick Bordeleau shed their gloves and helmets and took to punching each other in the face. Or at least, Gallant took to punching Bordeleau, because this was a one-sided tilt in which Gallant landed – either flush or glancing – 11 hard shots to Bordeleau's head. As I've said more than once since the fight, props to Bordy for hanging in there and remaining on his skates. This was a brutal display of what makes Gallant so feared: He fights with anger, ferocity, and more than a touch of the crazy. Good gracious. Here's video of the bout, in case you're interested.
So with that almost-certainly-prearranged encounter ended and the two combatants in the penalty box, everyone seemed ready to get back to actual hockey. Except they couldn't, because on the ensuing faceoff it was Oleg Yevenko and another former Monster fighter, Daniel Maggio, tangling in a tussle that was also discussed during a casual pre-game chat, I'm sure. This one was more even, as Yevenko used his usual reach advantage to hold off a very game Maggio. The two also fought late last year in one of Yevenko's first AHL games.
So THEN the game of hockey could be played, and for two periods the Rampage played it better. They jumped out to a 3-1 lead, getting two power-play goals against Lake Erie's vaunted penalty kill along the way. Zaar, though, actually opened the scoring 4½ minutes into the game when he took a nice centering pass from Steve Eminger and fired a wrister past Rampage goalie Roman Will.
Bjorkstrand kicked off the Lake Erie comeback with 20 seconds to go in the middle period as he buried a one-time slap shot from the left point on the power play. The Monsters often use Bjorkstrand at the point on the man advantage, and it's a tactic I like a lot because it gives him the option of pinching and playmaking when the opportunity presents itself, or as in this case, simply winding up and firing with that pinpoint shot of his.
Anyway, Bjorkstrand's goal made it 3-2, and it would stay that way until the 8½-minute mark of the third, when Zaar fed Chaput in the left circle and Chaput skated in and roofed a short-side shot over Will's shoulder to tie it. There wasn't much net to shoot at, but Chaput found the opening and took advantage of it.
Chaput became even more of a hero with less than a minute to go in overtime. Zaar centered a puck to Heatherington for a one-time slapper from the slot. Will cut down the angle to make the save, but the move left him way out of his crease and Chaput took advantage by picking up the rebound and depositing it over the helpless goalie for the winner.
Chaput (12-20-32) has taken over the team lead in scoring from T.J. Tynan (4-26-30), who managed only a single assist on the weekend. Zaar, meanwhile, has become more of a playmaker of late and sports a very balanced 13-14-27 line.
Thiessen stopped all nine shots he saw in relief of the scuffling Forsberg.
Saturday, February 20
San Antonio Rampage 3, Lake Erie 2 (SO)
This was a fun goalie duel for most of three periods between Thiessen and the Rampage's Reto Berra, who was making his first start since December after recovering from an ankle injury. Both netminders were on their games, stopping point-blank chances and just looking huge in net in the way only hot goalies can do.
It seemed the Monsters would finally get a hard-fought win when Bjorkstrand broke the scoreless tie with 1:45 to play in the third period. Bjorkstrand gloved down a San Antonio clearing attempt in the left circle and unleashed another slap shot that beat Berra for the 1-0 Lake Erie lead. It was Bjorkstrand's 10th goal of the year in just 36 games played.
The Monsters' Derek DeBlois took a hooking penalty seven seconds later and San Antonio pulled Berra, setting up a 6-on-4 situation. But all seemed well when Ramage collected the rebound of a Rampage shot from deep in his own zone and, not having to worry about icing, fired it all the way down the rink and into the empty net for a 2-0 Lake Erie advantage.
Then it all went wrong.
Twenty-one seconds after Ramage's empty-netter, San Antonio got a power-play marker when Mikko Rantanen scored from a tough angle off a rebound to make 2-1.
Then, with 23 seconds standing between Lake Erie and victory, the Rampage put another one past Thiessen, though it should be noted that he never really saw Maxim Noreau's center-point shot through traffic (and one wonders regardless why the Monsters' forwards were packed so tightly down low and not covering Noreau with at least one man).
The 3-on-3 overtime had its usual share of close calls and good chances, but neither goalie gave way. In the shootout, only Sonny Milano managed to solve Berra as he roofed a backhander over the glove. Thiessen made five shootout saves but was beaten first by former Monster Colin Smith and then, in the seventh round, by Noreau on a big slapper.
That was depressing. Still, the Monsters took three of a possible four points and now find themselves at a healthy 27-17-5-4 and in third place in the AHL Central Division.
Lake Erie continues its current seven-game homestand with three more at the Q this week. On Thursday, the Monsters face the Rochester Americans (Buffalo affiliate) for just the second time this season. The Americans thumped the Monsters 6-3 on opening night back in October, so we'll see how Lake Erie responds this time around. Then, on Friday and Saturday, it's back-to-back games against the Central Division-leading Rockford IceHogs (Chicago affiliate). The IceHogs, who are only four points ahead of the Monsters, would have been Lake Erie's opening-round playoff opponent if the season had ended this past weekend.