It's a situation for which the phrase "gut check" was evidently coined.
The Lake Erie Monsters, who at one point were 21 minutes and a three-goal lead away from a second consecutive series sweep, suddenly find their playoff world coming down around them.
After opening the postseason with a sweep of the Rockford Ice Hogs, the Monsters jumped out to a 3-0 division series lead on the Grand Rapids Griffins. Life was good. Entering Tuesday's Game 4, the Monsters were playing with poise and intensity.
And it showed in the first 39 minutes of that Game 4, as Lake Erie took a 4-1 lead late into the second period.
The deal, it seemed, was all but sealed.
We'll get to the details in a minute, but suffice it to say that now, the Monsters are the world's least-confident team with a 3-2 series lead.
They blew that three-goal advantage in Game 4 and surrendered six unanswered goals in a Game 5 home-ice loss. Combine that with the fact that Grand Rapids this season has been an historically streaky team that absolutely thrives on small doses of momentum, and even the task of winning one of (potentially) two final games seems like a tall order.
Game 6 is Monday night at 7 p.m. at Grand Rapids' Van Andel Arena. Should the Griffins win that one, Game 7 will be held in Columbus at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. The seventh game of the series was originally supposed to be Tuesday in Cleveland, but the Cavaliers now have an NBA playoff game there that night, and the arena is hosting a Carrie Underwood concert Wednesday. So, Columbus it is.
IF Grand Rapids can stay alive with a win Monday night. And right now, there's every reason to believe they can.
More than once over the past month and a half, we've made a point of saying how young the Monsters are. Yes, the AHL is a developmental league full of young players, but Lake Erie's roster is on the chronologically challenged side even by AHL standards.
One advantage of that has been the fact that most of the Monsters are simply too young and inexperienced to realize how improbable their postseason run has been. They just don't know any better.
But now that things are turning against them, the disadvantage of youth is that many of these kids don't understand how to deal with pressure and adversity on this scale.
Which is why Monday's match-up in Grand Rapids is going to tell us a lot about some of the Jackets' top prospects. Will they compete? Will they give a full 60-minute effort? Will they exhibit grace under mounting pressure? We'll find out, because they certainly did none of those things in the last period of Game 4 and the vast majority of Game 5.
Let's run down the Monsters' two losses this past week:
GAME 4 - Tuesday, May 10
Grand Rapids 5, Lake Erie 4
Boy, this was was a lot of fun for most of the first two periods. The Monsters got goals from Michael Chaput, Sonny Milano, Lukas Sedlak and Oliver Bjorkstrand and found themselves ahead 4-1 as the clock ticked down in the middle frame.
That Milano goal, you may have seen, was a thing of beauty. You don't often see a spin-o-rama, top-shelf backhander, but there it was. It was #1 on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays, and for good reason. Take a look here, if you haven't seen it.
After Bjorkstrand scored, Grand Rapids finally pulled goalie Tom McCollum, who had been so good in a Round 1 sweep of Milwaukee but had been decidedly average against the Monsters. He was replaced by Jared Coreau.
You know that theory that sometimes you need to pull your goalie even if it isn't his fault, just to give your team a little spark? And how that move doesn't work 90% of the time?
Yeah, it worked here.
The Griffins got a power-play goal with 55 seconds left in the period, then scored twice in the first five minutes of the third to forge a stunning tie.
After that, with momentum clearly in Grand Rapids' favor, it seemed only a matter of time before the Griffins would complete the comeback. And they did it with 1:55 left in the regulation when Andreas Athanasiou, sent down by the Red Wings before the series began, beat Joonas Korpisalo with a wrister from the left circle.
It was jarring, but it didn't seem like the end of the world. The series was coming back to Cleveland, and surely the Monsters could take care of business in their own barn on Saturday, right?
GAME 5 - Saturday, May 14
Grand Rapids 6, Lake Erie 1
Lake Erie scored first when Kerby Rychel went hard to the net and tapped in a feed from Zach Werenski late in the opening period. Then they followed that up by getting outworked and outplayed for the rest of the game. In front of 11,189 fans and a regional television audience.
Grand Rapids rattled off six goals in a row, including three by annoying winger Tyler Bertuzzi (Todd's nephew). The majority came on odd-man rushes or breakaways. The Griffins simply wanted the puck more, and in most cases, they got it.
Monsters coach Jared Bednar pulled Korpisalo from the ice with 5:44 to play in favor of Anton Forsberg, not so much because the debacle had been Korpisalo's fault but presumably to save him any further abuse from his porous defense and maybe to spark his team a bit the way Grand Rapids did with its goalie change in Game 4.
Which of course begs the question of who Bednar will start in Game 6. Personally, I would stick with Korpisalo, but then again I don't get paid to make those decisions, and maybe with good reason.
For what it's worth, both Chaput and Rychel dropped their gloves late in the game in a pair of scraps born solely of frustration. It was a spark of life from a team that desperately needs it. They could also use a doctor, as defensemen John Ramage and Michael Paliotta are both out with injuries and sorely missed.
The fact remains, the Monsters still need to win just once more, and lately they've been playing pretty well in Grand Rapids. So maybe they really will close things out on Monday.
But anyone who has seen the last four periods of this series probably wouldn't be willing to bet on it.