The Lake Erie Monsters are, as they say, loaded for bear and ready to roll as far as the AHL playoffs are concerned.
Roster-wise, the Blue Jackets' minor-league affiliate has at its disposal about as good a team as the organization is able to field at this level. In recent days, the Jackets have sent the likes of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, Josh Anderson, Justin Falk, Dean Kukan and Joonas Korpisalo back to the Cleveland to bolster Lake Erie's impending postseason party.
Add in first-round draft pick Zach Werenski, signed recently to an amateur tryout contract after concluding his collegiate hockey career, and it would seem the Monsters are a force to be reckoned with.
Which they could turn out to be. But right now it seems a few games are needed to give these guys time to learn to play with each other again.
There has been enough movement up and down between Cleveland and Columbus, and enough familiar line combinations and defensive pairings disrupted as a result, that familiarity may be a problem for the short term in Monsters Land.
Witness Lake Erie's just-concluded, uneven weekend of play. The Monsters salvaged 3 of a possible 6 points in the three-game set, but it felt like they could and should have done better.
In all three games they fell behind by two goals, though twice they managed to come back and tie it.
In a home-and-home against Rochester, a non-playoff team, they needed overtime to win one game and got shut out on home ice in the other.
It's not that the effort wasn't there. It's the precision that was missing. Passes were just a hair too far. Shots missed the net by inches. Checks were thrown and missed.
A few days of practice time will likely do these boys some good.
Lake Erie concludes its regular season this Friday and will presumably open the playoffs sometime next week against an undetermined opponent. The Monsters sit at 40-22-6-5 and dropped percentage points behind a potential first-round foe, Grand Rapids, into third place in the Central Division. Their loss Sunday snapped a seven-game point streak.
TRIVIA QUESTION: What was the last Cleveland hockey team to win a playoff series? Answer below.
Here's how last week unfolded:
Friday, April 8
Toronto Marlies 4, Lake Erie 3 (OT)
It was good to get a point in this one, but you would have liked to walk away with two when you go toe to toe with the best team in the AHL in its own barn. John Ramage was whistled for a questionable slashing penalty with just two seconds to play in regulation, setting up an overtime power play of which the Marlies quickly took advantage by scoring just 27 seconds into the extra session.
That tainted what had otherwise been a stirring Monsters comeback that saw defensemen Michael Paliotta and Mark Cundari both score in the first five minutes of the third period to erase a 3-1 deficit. Alex Broadhurst had the other Lake Erie goal just 1:26 into the game (though Toronto would tie it up a mere six seconds later off the ensuing center-ice faceoff). Anton Forsberg absorbed the loss in net, stopping 28 of 32 pucks that came his way.
The Marlies, by the way, are a stellar 52-15-5-1, easily good enough for the best record in the AHL. They score a buttload of goals and don't give up too many on the other end. As comically bad as their parent club has been in recent years, it appears the Toronto prospects are solid top to bottom.
Saturday, April 9
Lake Erie 4, Rochester Americans 3 (OT)
The Monsters enjoyed the overtime experience so much they did it again the next night in Rochester – only this time they came out on the winning end of things. Werenski got his first professional goal (and first pro point) in dramatic fashion, burying a wrist shot two minutes into OT to end it. The play happened quickly, with Michael Chaput cleanly winning an offensive-zone draw back to an open Werenski and the youngster taking a couple of quick strides before launching the puck from the high slot. You can take a look at it here. Nice, eh?
It was also the second consecutive night in which Lake Erie had to come back from being down 3-1. Daniel Zaar potted two Monsters goals in a six-minute stretch of the second period, the second of which came on the power play. Zaar (21-22-43), along with Chaput and T.J. Tynan, is one of three Monsters to have eclipsed the 40-point barrier this season.
Sunday, April 10
Rochester Americans 2, Lake Erie 0
The Monsters returned home for the first time since clinching their playoff spot the previous weekend, and it didn't go so well. A crowd of 10,545 showed up on a Sunday afternoon to see Lake Erie outshoot Rochester, 30-15, to no avail. Amerks goalie Andrey Makarov stood his ground and fended off every flurry to earn the shutout. Werenski skated and handled the puck pretty well, which makes you forget he's still just 18 years old. Unless he tanks in training camp, I suspect Monsters fans won't be seeing him next year...
Lake Erie finishes the AHL regular season this week with three games in three nights. Wednesday evening they'll be in Grand Rapids to take on the Griffins. Then it's two home games against the Charlotte Checkers on Thursday and Friday, the second of which is Fan Salute Night at Quicken Loans Arena. The Monsters will know for sure this coming weekend who they face in the playoffs and when it all starts. Buckle up!
The last Cleveland hockey team to win a playoff series was the 2003-04 Cleveland Barons, who defeated the Toronto Roadrunners in a best-of-three, opening-round series before falling to Hamilton in the second round. The Barons played two playoff-free seasons after that before relocating to Worcester, Massachusetts, for the 2006-07 season. Cleveland was without hockey for a year before the Monsters came to town in the fall of 2007. Prior to this season, they had qualified for the playoffs just once, in 2010-11, when they blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round and lost to Manitoba.