If nothing else, the Lake Erie Monsters and Grand Rapids Griffins will be more rested than they have been in months when they kick off their second-round, best-of-seven AHL playoff series Thursday evening in Downtown Cleveland.
Both teams swept their opening-round series and will have been off for nearly two weeks by the time they take to the ice to face each other for the 13th time this season.
Yeah, 13th time. The unbalanced AHL schedule gets a little ridiculous, especially when it comes to facing teams within your division. These two squads know each other extremely well, so no need for scouting reports or secret adjustments or anything. It's just a matter of lacing 'em up, banging bodies, working the corners, and finding out who wants it more.
Which is really how playoff hockey should be, don't you think?
This is a difficult series to read, in some respects. Grand Rapids is the ultimate streaky team, having fashioned not one but two double-digit winning streaks during the regular season. The Griffins won a franchise record 15 in a row from mid-November to late December – a streak that ended with a 3-2 loss to the Monsters. Then they fashioned a 13-game streak in March.
On the other hand, Grand Rapids limped to the finish of the regular season, dropping seven of its final 10 games. In contrast, the Monsters ended the regular season by winning eight of 10 before sweeping a best-of-five from Rockford in the first round.
Advantage Lake Erie, right? Well, also consider that Grand Rapids comfortably won the season series between the clubs, going 7-4-0-1. And the Griffins' first-round playoff sweep came against top-seeded Milwaukee.
You have to think this one is going to be close.
Let's see what the numbers say:
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
Grand Rapids Griffins
NHL affiliate: Detroit Red Wings
Regular-season record: 44-30-1-1 (90 pts., .592 winning percentage)
Standings: 4th place Central Division, 7th place Western Conference)
Goals for: 238
Goals against: 195
Game 1: Thursday, May 5th, @ Lake Erie (Quicken Loans Arena), 7 p.m. EDT
Game 2: Saturday, May 7th, @ Lake Erie, Noon EDT
Game 3: Sunday, May 8th, @ Grand Rapids (Van Andel Arena), 4 p.m. EDT
Game 4: Tuesday, May 10th, @ Grand Rapids, 7 p.m. EDT
Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, May 14th, @ Lake Erie, 7 p.m. EDT
Game 6 (if necessary): Monday, May 16th, @ Grand Rapids, 7 p.m. EDT
Game 7 (if necessary): Tuesday, May 17th, @ Lake Erie, 7 p.m. EDT
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 7-4-0-1 Grand Rapids (Grand Rapids outscored Lake Erie, 36-33)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
- PLAYOFF SCORING LEADERS: Josh Anderson (4-1-5), Alex Broadhurst (1-3-4), Oliver Bjorkstrand (2-2-4)
- PROBABLE GOALTENDER: Joonas Korpisalo (3-0, 2.00 GAA, .924 save%)
- PLAYOFF SCORING LEADERS: Anthony Mantha (3-1-4), Martin Frk (1-3-4)
- PROBABLE GOALTENDER: Tom McCollum (3-0, 1.00 GAA, .968 save%)
Lake Erie has looked so good for several weeks now. As Grand Rapids coach Todd Nelson himself told MLive.com about the Monsters, "They have fast forwards – skilled forwards – and they have grit to their lineup and big defensemen and big goaltending. So a pretty good recipe for a good hockey team." Indeed. The Monsters also have one of the AHL's best captains in 34-year-old Ryan Craig, a man who has his team playing hard and taking the most level-headed of approaches to the postseason.
But look at those numbers on Grand Rapids goalie Tom McCollum. That's a pretty good Milwaukee team McCollum and his mates swept in the first round, so it's obvious they've come out of whatever funk was affecting them near the end of the regular season. Still, I think the intangibles go Lake Erie's way in this one. I'm not going so far as to place the cliched "team of destiny" tag on them, but they have a whiff of that about them.
I'm going Monsters in six games for a trip to the Western Conference finals.