We're getting into late May and the Lake Erie Monsters are still playing hockey.
If you're a fan of the Blue Jackets, there's everything to love about that statement.
You have a group of kids who have advanced to the American Hockey League's version of the Final Four on the strength of a disciplined approach, gritty play, and more than a dose of sheer talent.
They're learning what it takes to win, and to win consistently in the postseason when there's a price to be paid for every goal. We as fans can't fully appreciate how much these guys lay it on the line every night this far into the playoffs.
The theory is that this experience will help build a core of guys who will eventually take that winning attitude and willingness to sacrifice down to Columbus, where at some indeterminate point in the future it will translate into a deep playoff run for the big club.
More immediately, though, everyone associated with the Lake Erie franchise is taking it all in and enjoying every second.
Of course, the players themselves will tell you they're not finished yet. That just making it further than any Cleveland hockey team has gotten in nearly 20 years isn't enough. That they're working (and expecting) to get the eight more wins required to hoist the Calder Cup.
Standing in their way is perhaps the biggest hurdle the Monsters have yet faced: The defending AHL champion Ontario Reign, a team that includes a solid veteran group of players who themselves lifted the Calder just 11 months ago as members of the Manchester Monarchs before the franchise pulled up stakes and moved west to the region known as California's "Inland Empire."
The two teams, who didn't play each other at all this season, will get familiar with one another in a hurry, as their best-of-seven Western Conference finals series kicks off tonight in Ontario with an 11 p.m. Eastern faceoff.
There is no doubt that Ontario this season was good. Really good. They finished the regular season 44-19-4-1, good enough for the top seed in the conference and the second-best record overall in the AHL. The team stat that stands out most is goals against. In 68 games, the Reign gave up only 138 goals.
The next best team in the league? The Albany Devils at 167. The #3 team? Your Lake Erie Monsters at 188. And while it should be noted that Albany and Lake Erie played 76 games vs. Ontario's 68 (Pacific Division teams played fewer games this season than everyone else...bring up this topic if you want to see a fan of a non-Pacific Division AHL team go ballistic), it's still darn impressive.
The man between the pipes for Ontario is none other than Peter Budaj, former Colorado Avalanche and, to a lesser extent, Montreal Canadien. Budaj has been nothing short of spectacular this season. He played in 60 of his team's 68 games, going 42-14-4 with a 1.75 GAA and .932 SV%. In the postseason, Budaj comes in at 7-2, 1.73, .918.
I had a nice email conversation this week with two of the writers from JewelsFromTheCrown.com, the L.A. Kings' SB Nation site (Did we mention that Ontario is the Kings' AHL affiliate? No, we didn't. Sorry about that.) One, Robyn Pennington, said that initially, the Reign's goaltending duties were supposed to have been handled by a pair of youngsters: Patrik Bartosak and Jean-Francois Berube. But Berube was claimed off waivers by the Islanders, while Bartosak suffered a hand injury that required surgery.
So in stepped Budaj, the 33-year-old veteran who simply decided that he wasn't ready to hang 'em up and worked his tail off to play at a consistently high level.
"They're not asking (Budaj) to steal too many games," Pennington said. "I find it quite similar to the Kings where [the defense and Budaj] have a symbiotic relationship."
Offensively, the Reign rely on a tried-and-true approach focusing on zone exits and breakout passes from the blueline. Scoring-wise, Ontario was led this season by Sean Backman, a Yale product who has been with the team for three seasons and registered a 21-34-55 line. Backman is undersized (5-8, 165) but highly skilled.
My JewelsFromTheCrown friends tell me another player to keep an eye on is Adrian Kempe, a 19-year-old Swedish left winger. He had only 28 points in 55 regular-season games, but he's tied for second on the team in playoff scoring with five points in nine games. He's fast and uses his speed to frustrate defenses and draw penalties.
The Reign forward who most worries me, quite frankly, is centerman Nic Dowd. He's a T.J. Tynan-like playmaker with decent size (6-2, 196), and plus he played collegiately at St. Cloud State. I just love a lot of the guys who come out of that Huskies program.
Sheng Peng, another JewelsFromTheCrown writer who seriously covers the Reign like a real beat writer, helped me draw up a quick scouting report on Ontario. I asked Sheng how an opposing coach might come at the Reign to exploit a weakness, and this is what I heard back (I include Sheng's entire response because it's so insightful):
"Take away the middle of the ice. Led by Nic Dowd, the Reign (like their parent club) love to go through their centermen on breakouts, and if you can choke off their usual control of the middle of the ice, you're off to a good start. Brett Sutter's absence is an underrated loss in this department for Ontario.
"The Reign's long, mobile defensive corps have enjoyed a lot of success this season standing up in the neutral zone, so you have to push them back with your speed or win those dump-ins. If you can't do either, you're in for a long night.
"Getting a lead is especially useful against Ontario. Of course, it helps against any team, but the Reign aren't a high-scoring squad anymore, so you can get ahead and trap them into submission.
"Tied into this somewhat middling attack, their power play has not been intimidating this season. So while you never want to take penalties, play your game against Ontario. The Reign can hurt you, but they shouldn't kill you on the man advantage.
Ultimately, Ontario is a team with a somewhat slim margin for error. They don't score a lot and count on Peter Budaj to erase their few mistakes. Any deviation from those norms is probably in your favor."
Can't ask for more intel than that, eh? Here's Robyn and Sheng's complete Lake Erie-Ontario series preview.
In any event, we've been following a certain format in these playoff previews, so for consistency's sake, here's the series in a nutshell:
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 affiliate: Los Angeles Kings
Regular-season record: 44-19-4-1 (93 pts., .684 winning percentage)
Standings: 1st place Pacific Division, 1st place Western Conference
Goals for: 192
Goals against: 138
SERIES SCHEDULE (all times Eastern)
GAME 1: Saturday, May 21st, at Ontario, 11 p.m.
GAME 2: Sunday, May 22nd, at Ontario, 10 p.m.
GAME 3: Tuesday, May 24th, at Lake Erie, 7 p.m.
GAME 4: Thursday, May 26th, at Lake Erie, 7 p.m.
*GAME 5: Saturday, May 28th, at Lake Erie, Noon
*GAME 6: Tuesday, May 31st, at Ontario, 10 p.m.
*GAME 7: Wednesday, June 1st, at Ontario, 10 p.m.
* - if necessary
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: Did not play
PLAYERS TO WATCH
- Playoff scoring leaders: Zach Werenski (4-6-10), Josh Anderson (5-4-9), Alex Broadhurst (2-7-9), Oliver Bjorkstrand (4-4-8), Lukas Sedlak (4-3-7)
- Goaltenders: Joonas Korpisalo (6-2, 2.96 GAA, .898 SV%), Anton Forsberg (1-0, 1.06 GAA, .966 SV%) - By the way, we haven't talked about the Monsters' goaltending situation. Anton Forsberg won the series-clincher against Grand Rapids in relief of Korpisalo, but Jared Bednar hasn't said who will be starting tonight, at least as of this writing. It's a toss-up, but I'm starting to lean toward Forsberg.
- Playoff scoring leaders: Nic Dowd (3-5-8), Adrian Kempe (4-1-5), Justin Auger (3-2-5), Michael Mersch (2-3-5), Kevin Gravel (0-5-5)
- Goaltender: Peter Budaj (7-2, 1.73 GAA, .918 SV%)
Oh boy...First, let me say that so far I've correctly predicted the results of both Monsters playoff series, even getting the number of games correct in the Grand Rapids series (Monsters in 6). But it was easier to handicap those series because we know a lot about Rockford and Grand Rapids. Ontario? I know about as much as you've just read. Their numbers were out of this world, but they compiled most of them playing against the same small sample of Pacific teams, specifically the California-based clubs. How good was the opposition? Pretty good, I would say, but we just don't know. In any event, many of these guys have been here before, while most of the Monsters haven't. That's a big factor. Not something that can't be overcome, but late May/June playoff experience is a valuable commodity, and it clearly goes in the Reign's favor. They obviously have the defense and goaltending needed to win at this point of the postseason, too, so Lake Erie will have to make the most of absolutely every one of its chances against Budaj.
The Monsters have played such a disciplined game in these playoffs. Their poise and composure, especially from such a young group, has been impressive, and it should give some hope for the future to long-suffering Blue Jackets fans. I imagine Werenski, Anderson and Bjorkstrand, among others, are going to have a tougher time finding open ice in this series than they did against Rockford and Grand Rapids. And when they do, Budaj is tough to solve.
Because of that – and Lord forgive me for saying it – I'm going with the Reign to win in 6 games and advance to the Calder Cup finals.