Hockey in mid- and late April: Something the Blue Jackets as a franchise have not seen much of, and something hockey fans up north in Cleveland haven't seen at all in five years.
But it's going to happen, thanks to the group of hungry young prospects who comprise the 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters. The Monsters ended the regular season as winners of 8 of their last 10 games, and they appear set to make some noise in the postseason, which begins this Wednesday when Lake Erie travels to Rockford, Illinois, to begin a best-of-five series against the Rockford IceHogs.
As is the case with any playoffs, there are a number of interesting little storylines that could affect the way the series goes.
One of those is the fact that Lake Erie, which had the superior record, is opening the series with two games on the road. At first this caused all sorts of weeping and gnashing of teeth among Monsters fans who couldn't understand why the team would have to start in Rockford after working so hard to secure home ice. Conspiracy theories were floated claiming the Cleveland Cavaliers, with whom the Monsters share Quicken Loans Arena, had forced Lake Erie into vacating the venue for a week as they began the NBA playoffs.
Then it was explained that the distance between Cleveland and Rockford was long enough to make bus trips too inconvenient, and that rather than force Rockford to potentially fly twice to Cleveland (for Games 1 and 2 and a possible Game 5), the decision was made to start the series in Rockford. Plus, higher seeds across the AHL who are playing the 2-3 format are electing to start on the road, so the decision to structure it that way is in no way unique.
In any case, it's interesting simply for the fact that of the eight games the Monsters and IceHogs played during the regular season, the home team won every single one. Yes, the Monsters were 4-0 against Rockford in Cleveland, and an abject 0-4 against the 'Hogs on the road. Lake Erie scored a combined three goals in those four away games.
So there's that. If the Monsters can manage to steal one in Rockford, they'll have a distinct advantage because Games 3, 4 and 5 of the series are all at the Q. Of course, if they lose both games in Rockford, well...that's going to be a big hole from which Lake Erie will have to extricate itself.
Anyway, here's a look at the series for your edification:
Lake Erie Monsters
NHL affiliate: Columbus Blue Jackets
Regular-season record: 43-22-6-5 (97 pts, .638 winning percentage)
Standings: 2nd place Central Division, 3rd place Western Conference
Goals for: 211
Goals against: 188
NHL affililate: Chicago Blackhawks
Regular-season record: 40-22-10-4 (94 pts, .618 winning percentage)
Standings: 3rd place Central Division, 4th place Western Conference
Goals for: 214
Goals against: 205
Game 1: Wednesday, April 20th, @ Rockford (BMO Harris Bank Center), 8 p.m. EDT
Game 2: Thursday, April 21st, @ Rockford, 8 p.m. EDT
Game 3: Saturday, April 23rd, @ Lake Erie (Quicken Loans Arena), 7 p.m. EDT
Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, April 25th, @ Lake Erie, 7 p.m. EDT
Game 5 (if necessary): Thursday, April 28th, @ Lake Erie, 7 p.m. EDT
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 4-4 (Rockford outscored Lake Erie, 22-20)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
- SKATERS: The Monsters' leading scorer this season was diminutive centerman T.J. Tynan (6-40-46). He was followed closely by Michael Chaput (16-29-45) and Daniel Zaar (21-22-43). Big winger Josh Anderson (18-21-39) appeared to suffer a knee injury in the closing seconds of the regular-season finale, but he did skate off under his own power and came out after the game for Fan Salute Night activities, so hopefully he'll be ready to roll. Lake Erie enters the series with a strong and consistent defensive corps, led by Jaime Sifers (supposedly returning from a foot injury), Dillon Heatherington, John Ramage, Justin Falk and Michael Paliotta. Youngster Zach Werenski is right in the mix with those guys.
- GOALTENDERS: This could get interesting. Presumably, Joonas Korpisalo is the #1 guy heading into the playoffs, as he returned a week or two ago from a successful stint in Columbus and appears to be the organization's #2 in net. However, Korpisalo at the AHL level this year has been mediocre at best. Anton Forsberg, on the other hand, has been playing very well of late with the Monsters and has posted some very good AHL stats (23-10, 2.40 GAA, .914 SV%). I would expect to see Korpisalo get the start in Game #1, and then for the coaching staff to adjust from there depending on his performance.
- SKATERS: The IceHogs' point leaders this year were C Vinnie Hinostroza (18-33-51), C Mark McNeill (25-23-48) and D Ville Pokka (10-35-45). C Jake Dowell 11-24-35) is another Rockford stalwart who gives opponents real headaches, while wild man Pierre-Cedric Labrie is a big (6-3, 221) physical left winger with whom Anderson has developed a decidedly unfriendly little rivalry. Rockford is in some sense very much like Lake Erie in that the IceHogs distribute their offensive production well and have enough size and speed to make life difficult for you.
- GOALTENDERS: This is where it gets interesting for Rockford, too. Leading the IceHogs in goalie appearances this year was AHL veteran Michael Leighton, who set the league record for shutouts in a career (he has had something like 4 billion of them). When Leighton is between the pipes, Rockford is as tough to beat as any team in the AHL. But he's not. He's up with the Blackhawks, and I've heard nothing to suggest he's coming back for this AHL playoff series. Will update that if I hear differently. In his place will be some combination of Drew MacIntyre (13-16, 3.08, .892) and Mac Carruth (6-5, 2.30, .926), neither of whom are bad but neither of whom are Leighton, either.
Lake Erie in 5. I would not be the least bit surprised if the trend of home team victories continues in this series and Rockford comes to Cleveland with a 2-0 series advantage. The Monsters have enough grit and veteran leadership to rattle off three consecutive victories against the IceHogs, though let's hope they don't put themselves in that position. In any event, I see this one going the distance. The winner could have division powerhouse Milwaukee in the second round.