It sadly isn't the case in the state capital of Ohio, but a couple of hours north in Cleveland, there is undoubtedly a whiff of playoff hockey in the late winter air.
That's because the Lake Erie Monsters are, in just about any way you want to look at it, a team on the rise. The Monsters cemented their status as a club to watch this past weekend, winning all three of their games, including a pair of one-goal victories over the top team in their division, the Rockford Ice Hogs.
Before those two intense Rockford games was a relatively easy 5-2 victory over the Rochester Americans on Thursday. On Friday night, the Monsters surged to a lead over Rockford and hung on for a 5-4 win, followed Saturday evening by a dramatic 3-2 overtime decision on a Daniel Zaar goal.
Lake Erie's record stands at 30-17-5-4, putting the Blue Jackets' top affiliate in fourth place in the AHL Central Division by winning percentage and second place (tied with Milwaukee) by points. It is the fastest any Monsters club has reached 30 wins in franchise history..."franchise history" only covering nine seasons, but still.
So how have the Monsters – a team that was looking pretty mediocre only a month or two ago – done it? Well, that's the best part of all. It isn't just one or two players who have come on. It isn't one hot goalie they've ridden. Lake Erie has become a force in the AHL's Western Conference thanks to marked improvement all over the ice. A growing cast of characters have propelled the Monsters into contention.
Take a look:
We've been telling you a lot about "journeyman" (I hate that word because it belittles what he really is) goalie Brad Thiessen, and with good reason. Thiessen got all of the playing time when both Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg were called up to Columbus, and he performed admirably. And he continues to perform admirably, getting the win in net Friday over an excellent Rockford team and serving as the deserving subject of a nice profile article on AHL.com.
But the real story this past week was the resurgence of Forsberg, a guy who has been inconsistent at best this season while Korpisalo has sailed past him on the organizational depth chart. Forsberg was in goal for the Rochester and second Rockford games, and was named the third and second stars in those contests, respectively.
Forsberg looks much more confident in net now than he has most of the season. The Jackets' front office knows he has talent, and it was nice to see him flash some of that talent last week. He looked poised, positioned himself well on almost every shot, and just seemed to be having a lot more fun. Here's hoping that continues for him.
Michael Paliotta got the briefest cup of coffee when he was called up to Columbus Friday and made his Blue Jackets debut the next night. He put two pucks on net and committed two minor penalties in that game, and was immediately sent back to Cleveland afterward. It was a little reward for his strong play in the minors, and the organization hopes he can refine his game a bit more in Cleveland so that his next call-up lasts longer.
John Ramage continues to shine along the blue line for Lake Erie. He had a point in each of the three games (1-2-3) last week, was a combined plus-2 against quality competition, and is generally becoming the kind of reliable shutdown defenseman you can put out there in any situation. What a difference between the Ramage of January/February and the Ramage of November/December.
Getting Justin Falk back from the big club certainly helps the Monsters, as does the consistent play of Jaime Sifers, Dillon Heatherington, and veteran signees Steve Eminger and Steve McCarthy. As for big Oleg Yevenko, he's coming along. He still looks awkward on his skates at times, and that may never really change. But he's a physical force and a great teammate who will do anything that's asked of him, so the Jackets are probably best served allowing him to get as much ice time in Cleveland as possible and develop as he will.
This is where everybody is truly getting into the act. For a while there, the Monsters' offense was powered by a relatively small core of Zaar, T.J. Tynan and Michael Chaput. But now Josh Anderson is playing much more up to his potential, Oliver Bjorkstrand is shining, Sonny Milano is looking more comfortable, and even guys like Alex Broadhurst, Trent Vogelhuber and Lukas Sedlak are contributing in more noticeable ways up front.
Statistically last week, the guys who shined on the score sheet were Anderson (3-1-4), Chaput (0-4-4), Zaar (2-1-3), Broadhurst (2-1-3) and Bjorkstrand (2-1-3).
One highlight of the week was Milano's NHL-caliber, top-shelf backhand goal against Rochester on Thursday. You can get a couple of looks at it here starting at around the 1:14 mark. If there's one thing Milano can do, it's lift the puck from close range into tight spaces. He continues to get better all over the ice, but there's still much work for the youngster to do. Still, it's an encouraging situation for the 19-year-old prospect.
Chaput, the Monsters' leading scorer with 34 points, left Saturday's game with an injury, so here's hoping he's OK. Losing him would be a tough blow.
As for Bjorkstrand and Zaar, both have been helped by the play of their fellow forwards of late, as it keeps teams from keying on them and gives them more open ice in which to show off their skills. Zaar has a heavy, heavy shot and can put the puck in the net from almost anywhere in the zone, while Bjorkstrand is showing himself to be a great playmaker who must be accounted for at all times when he's out there.
If Columbus called today and asked for a recommendation of a forward for a call-up? I'm going Bjorkstrand. He's much more of a special talent than I honestly realized at the start of the year. We'll continue to watch his progression closely.
- All three games last week were on home ice, where the Monsters are now 19-5-1-3.
- Saturday's game drew 12,398 fans, the fourth-largest crowd of the season at Quicken Loans Arena. That kept the Monsters in third place among 30 AHL teams in attendance with an average of 8,429 per game.
- Another busy week is on tap as Lake Erie has the Milwaukee Admirals at the Q for games this Tuesday and Thursday, then it's off to Illinois to take on Rockford again at the IceHogs' rink Saturday and Sunday.