Depending on the perspective you bring to this blog, you're going to care about one or both of the following news items from the AHL:
(1) By virtue of sweeping two games in Chicago this past weekend, along with getting some help from out west, the Lake Erie Monsters have punched their AHL postseason ticket, securing a playoff spot for the first time since 2011.
(2) Zach Werenski made his professional debut in those two Chicago games, and by all accounts, he's starting off on the right foot. Whether or not he lives up to Lake Erie Coach Jared Bednar's assessment of him as an "elite talent" remains to be seen. But, you know, to the extent you can judge anyone on 120 minutes of hockey, the tools are at least there.
We in Cleveland are of course pleased as punch on both counts, but you'll forgive us if we tend to put a little more emphasis on #1. As I've documented here more than once, the Monsters were consistently – stunningly, even – mediocre over their eight-year affiliation with the Colorado Avalanche. We had only the one playoff appearance on which to hang our hats, and we didn't even win a series that year.
So to have this exciting group of Columbus prospects come to town this season and make the postseason right out of the gate, well...it's actually a little emotional for those of us who:
- Have been Lake Erie season ticket holders from the moment the franchise came to town in 2007
- Are lifelong Cleveland sports fans, which of course involves enduring years and years of losing in increasingly painful ways and reserving the right to whine about it to anyone who will listen
So yeah, the playoffs? A very, very good thing for those of us in Cleve-town, my friends. A very, very good thing.
Let's take just a moment to focus in on Mr. Werenski, shall we?
The boy signed an amateur tryout contract with the Monsters last week and joined them in Chicago for a pair of divisional match-ups with the Wolves. Actually, he joined them in Rosemont, Illinois, which is where the Wolves play in what used to be the Rosemont Horizon but is now Allstate Arena.
He stayed with the team in a Residence Inn that's literally just across a very large parking lot from the rink. I know this because my son and I stayed at the same place and saw both games, and we saw several of the Monsters eating their bleary-eyed breakfasts in the Residence Inn lobby each morning.
I bring this up to point out that Werenski is not being handed the NHL life on a silver platter. At least not at first. Riding the bus and staying in second-rate hotels, even if it's only for a month or two, is a good way for him to start his pro career. You hope it makes him appreciate anything else that may come his way in the future.
As for the games themselves, Werenski did not seem at all out of place. On his second shift of the game Friday, he put a big hit on Chicago's Ty Rattie, drawing the wrath of almost every Wolf on the ice. He kept his cool, though, and Chicago was assessed a roughing minor that produced a Lake Erie power play.
Of course, on his very first shift that night, he flung a breakout pass from his defensive zone that almost got Lake Erie captain Ryan Craig's head taken off, but we'll forgive him the occasional suicide pass early on.
After virtually every shift – on Friday, at least, which is when we were sitting directly behind the Monsters' bench – either Bednar or Lake Erie assistant Nolan Pratt were in Werenski's ear giving him feedback. Both Bednar and Pratt were pro defensemen, so they know of which they speak. Werenski appeared to take the instruction well.
Statistically, Werenski didn't set the world on fire, but that certainly wasn't the point. He was a combined plus-1 with five shots on net, and he saw some quality time on the Lake Erie power play. No, he didn't get on the scoresheet, but that's coming. It's only a matter of time.
In any event, the Monsters as a team have won five consecutive games. Their victory Saturday night, combined with San Diego's 4-3 win over San Jose, was enough to make Lake Erie the fifth AHL team to clinch a playoff spot this season. The win also temporarily vaulted them into second place in the Central Division and third in the AHL's Western Conference, though Grand Rapids' victory yesterday moved them a whisker back ahead of the Monsters.
So yeah, it feels good this morning. Josh Anderson looked sharp over the weekend, scoring twice and picking up an assist. T.J. Tynan went 1-2-3, while Steve Eminger potted three goals from his blueline spot. Eminger was paired with Werenski, and I'm sure he provided some solid veteran guidance to the young man.
A quick look back at two very sweet victories:
Friday, April 1
Lake Erie 4, Chicago Wolves 3
A bit of a see-saw battle, this one. It was tied at 3 through much of the third period until Chicago took consecutive high-sticking penalties and Eminger fired home the winning power-play goal with 1:50 to play. John Ramage also scored, as Lake Erie's defensive corps accounted for 75% of its offense on the night. Anderson claimed the other Monsters goal, while Anton Forsberg rode a 25-save performance to victory.
Saturday, April 2
Lake Erie 4, Chicago Wolves 1
Coming into the game, the Monsters had beaten Chicago in six of seven meetings this season, and it was obvious the Wolves were not happy about it. As it did on Friday, Chicago came out flying in the second period and dominated the frame, scoring a goal to tie it and generally taking all of the momentum into the third.
But oh man, that third period. It belonged completely to Lake Erie, which scored three times and sent 8,216 Chicago fans home unhappy. Actually they weren't all Chicago fans, as a contingent of Monsters fans took the several-hour bus ride to Rosemont to take in the game, courtesy of the Cleveland Hockey Booster Club. And they were loud. You could hear Lake Erie fans throughout the game, prompting at least one Chicago booster to complain publicly on the Wolves' Facebook page. That was awesome.
Anyway, after Eminger registered his third of the weekend to open the scoring in the first period, it was the Monsters' forward corps stepping up and doing its job in the final 20 minutes. Over an 8½-minute stretch of the third period, it was Michael Chaput, Tynan and Anderson all lighting the lamp to put the game away. I really liked Anderson's icing-on-the-cake goal, as he skated in on the Chicago net and wired one of those "you're not going to stop it so don't even try" top-shelf, glove-side wristers he loves.
I wish the AHL gave ready access to time-on-ice stats, because I would love to see how many minutes Brett Gallant played. That had to be at least close to a season high for the Monsters' enforcer, as he skated what appeared to be a very regular shift and even spent some time on the penalty kill. The penalty kill! Brett Gallant! If that has happened before, I wasn't aware. I suspect it's a reward from the Monsters' coaching staff for a season of hard work in the trenches. Brett does not have a great deal of skill, but he works hard all the time. All. The. Time. So it's nice to see him get some special teams work as a result.
Oh, and also, Forsberg got this night off while Brad Thiessen very capably manned the nets and registered his 12th win as a Monster by making 25 saves. When Joonas Korpisalo comes back to Cleveland, I assume that means Thiessen will be the odd man out and he'll return to ECHL Cincinnati. Which really seems unfair, considering how well he has played and how hard he has worked for the Monsters this year. But that's life when you're not a young draft pick anymore, my friends. It happens.
The Monsters have six regular-season games remaining in which they'll try and tune up some things and secure as high a playoff seed as they can manage. They're looking at a typically tough AHL three-in-three this weekend, as they travel to Toronto on Friday to take on the powerful Marlies, followed by a home-and-home with Rochester that begins Saturday on the Amerks' ice and concludes Sunday at 5 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena. Lake Erie, by the way, is now 39-21-5-5, has won a season-high five in a row, and has emerged the winner in eight of its last 10 games. That's pretty good.