Hey, can we talk about Lukas Sedlak for a moment? (We'll get to Sonny Milano in a minute, I promise.)
Back on February 1st, I wrote the following about Sedlak in an assessment of Jackets prospects on the Lake Erie roster:
Lukas Sedlak (29 GP, 2-2-4, +4, 17 PIMs): Sedlak hustles and has a strong shot. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else to point to in his skill set that would particularly recommend him. He's a 22-year-old Czech kid whose NHL future, if he has one, is almost certainly as a third- or fourth-line, two-way center. He has to do all of the little things right to advance.
And I still think I was right in saying all of that, because at the time, Sedlak was close to being a non-entity. He just hadn't contributed much to the Monsters' cause to that point in the season.
Which makes what Sedlak has done over the past five games particularly remarkable. What he has done is score six times over that span, helping the Monsters win all three of their games this past weekend and move closer to locking up an AHL Western Conference playoff spot.
Sedlak's five-game goal streak has pushed his season stats to 11-4-15 – a marked improvement from the pedestrian line he sported less than two months ago.
So how has he done it? To hear Sedlak tell it in a pregame radio interview on Saturday, it has been a simple matter of actually shooting at the net (a novel idea, that) and, he said modestly, probably a lot of luck.
I'm not ready to anoint Sedlak as the next great Blue Jackets forward prospect or anything. He has to keep producing with some semblance of regularity through the rest of the regular season and (presuming they make it) in the playoffs. But he's a great example of what happens when one or two guys step up their games as we enter the most exciting part of the season.
You know who else is stepping up? That would be Milano, a first-round draft pick who has a better pedigree than Sedlak and a stronger claim to the title of "next great forward prospect."
Milano had a pair of two-goal games over the weekend, though ironically the game in which he didn't score was the one in which the first 10,000 of a season-high 13,188 Monsters fans on Saturday received his bobble head. He looks so much more comfortable now than he did just a couple of months ago. We've been saying for a while in this space to be patient with Milano and he would eventually produce. And for once it appears we were right.
You should continue being patient with Milano, by the way, because he's a 19-year-old kid who will likely be frustratingly inconsistent. But that's OK, because he's on the right trajectory. The talk about him going back to the OHL after he returned from the World Junior Championships seems forever ago, and honestly, also seems a little ridiculous now. Milano is where he needs to be, which is skating with an AHL team that's playing its best hockey and gunning for the first hockey playoff spot Cleveland has seen since the 2010-11 season.
To be precise, Lake Erie is now 37-21-5-5 and in a virtual tie with Rockford for third place in the Central Division. If the Monsters can vault past Rockford and grab the fourth-place slot in the conference, they'll get home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and a heck of a lot of confidence to go with it.
So I need to tell you about the three games in three nights the Monsters played this past week, all of which resulted in convincing wins over division rivals. Seriously, they were all fun. Let's take a quick look back:
Thursday, March 24
Lake Erie 4, Rockford IceHogs 2
This was one of the games in which Milano had two goals, including one in which he tapped in a puck and then went nearly full Bobby Orr flying over the goaltender. That was pretty cool.
You know what else was cool? Sedlak scoring just 8 seconds into the game. Yeah, 8 seconds. Lake Erie took the opening faceoff and chipped the puck into the offensive zone, where Josh Anderson took possession and quickly fired a shot from the right circle that appeared to beat Rockford goalie Mac Carruth. It was later determined, though, that Sedlak – who was standing near the crease – had deflected the shot in.
Rockford would tie the game a minute later, but the Monsters went on to score three unanswered goals to notch the victory. In addition to the Milano markers, Markus Hannikainen used some slick stickhandling to get himself free and pop home his seventh of the season. I really like Markus Hannikainen. Keep him on your watch list.
Friday, March 25
Lake Erie 5, Rockford IceHogs 1
It was a frustrated Rockford team Friday that saw itself score first before allowing Lake Erie to rip off five consecutive goals to make it a rout. The result was that a few of the IceHogs spent the third period skating around looking for a Monster to check, injure or otherwise maim.
One glance at the box score shows how quickly things got out of hand. The final period saw 102 combined penalty minutes, including a match penalty to Rockford's Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who got into it with Josh Anderson and at one point appeared to be smacking Anderson in the head with his own helmet. That's a big no-no. Expect some discipline to come down from the league office from that.
Brett Gallant was, of course, also involved in the melee and was tossed for a secondary altercation. After calm was restored on the ice, some of the brouhaha reportedly continued in the hallway connecting the two teams' locker rooms, and even the assistant coaches were screaming at each other.
I love hockey.
Anyway, in the actual game, the offensive stars were Daniel Zaar (1-2-3) and Sedlak (2-0-2). Anderson also notched two of the five assists he had on the weekend. And believe me, he earned those assists. Josh is making things happen on the ice these days, and I expect him to make the Blue Jackets staff think long and hard before sending him back to the AHL come training camp this fall.
Something that may get lost in all of the scoring and pugilistic activity is the fact that Anton Forsberg got the win both Thursday and Friday. He stopped 53 of the combined 56 shots fired at him in those games and continued to look like a goalie the Monsters can count on in the postseason. If and when Joonas Korpisalo comes back to Cleveland, it will be interesting to see how the Lake Erie coaches decide who to start and whether or not to alternate the two.
Saturday, March 27
Lake Erie 5, Grand Rapids Griffins 2
This, to me, was the most impressive win of the weekend. Maybe the most impressive road win of the season.
After Friday's win, the Monsters got on a bus and took the overnight ride up to Michigan to face a Grand Rapids team that is ahead of them in the division and that had been playing excellent hockey of late. Third game in three nights, tough divisional opponent on the road: That's a recipe for an excusable loss.
But Lake Erie would have none of it, jumping out to a 4-0 lead early in the second period and chasing stellar Griffins goaltender Jared Coreau from his cage after the fourth goal. The Griffins made it a little interesting in the third, but the Monsters held firm, with Brad Thiessen returning to the nets and posting the victory with 36 saves.
Scoring-wise, it was Milano with two, Sedlak and Zaar with one each, and defenseman Jaime Sifers notching an empty-netter and an assist. The Monsters' power play, which has lagged behind the team's top-notch penalty kill all season long, scored twice.
Lake Erie has some time to catch its breath before starting a stretch in which it plays five of its next six games on the road. That will include two this weekend in Rosemont, Illinois, against the Chicago Wolves on Friday and Saturday. My son and I are taking a road trip to the Windy City and will be in attendance both nights, so I'll let you know how the Monsters look and whether they can keep their foot on the gas after what had to be an exhausting (yet very satisfying) weekend of play.