I will readily admit that, had you offered me a $100 bet a few days ago that the Lake Erie Monsters would be coming home with a 2-0 AHL Western Conference finals series lead over the Ontario Reign, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.
I figured the Monsters would be hard pressed to win even one game in California against the Pacific Division powerhouse Reign.
But in the space of just over 24 hours, Lake Erie took care of business twice, scoring in spurts and holding on at the end of both games to put themselves in the most enviable of positions heading into Game 3 Tuesday night at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena.
There's still reason to feel a bit nervous about the Monsters' performance to this point (see below), but hey, going up 2-0 in any playoff series is reason for celebration, and that's exactly what Lake Erie and its sleep-deprived fans should be doing today.
In Saturday's series opener, the Monsters tallied three quick goals in a 156-second span of the second period. On Sunday, it was a two-goal spurt in just 12 seconds of the opening period that set the tone.
First it was Markus Hannikainen getting his first goal of the playoffs with a delayed penalty coming to the Reign. Monsters captain Ryan Craig sent a puck down low that the increasingly dependable Lukas Sedlak tipped across the crease to a swooping Hannikainen, who needed only to tap it into the gaping cage for a 1-0 Lake Erie lead 12:28 into the contest.
Then, off the ensuing faceoff, Sedlak found himself on a quick 2-on-1 break with Oliver Bjorkstrand on his right side. Sedlak elected to keep the puck and fired a shot that beat Ontario goalie Peter Budaj five-hole, and the Monsters were quickly up two.
The lead increased to 3-0 five minutes into the second period when T.J. Tynan buried a loose puck on the power play from just outside of Budaj's crease.
As was the case on Saturday, the Monsters were a bit shaky in the third period and allowed Ontario to get right back into it, giving up a pair of goals. One of those was an excuse-me marker off the skate of Reign tough guy and NHL veteran Paul Bissonnette. It was the first playoff goal of BizNasty's 11-year professional career.
In any event, the Monsters were able to fend off Ontario's desperate push from there to put themselves into the series' driver's seat. Games 3, 4 and (if necessary) 5 will all be played in Quicken Loans Arena, and it will be interesting to see how Lake Erie deals with what is sure to be a relentess Reign attack on home ice.
Now, let me be That Guy for just a minute and suggest three reasons why we shouldn't be buying Calder Cup Finals tickets just yet:
- Anton Forsberg. Look, he hasn't been bad by any stretch in these two games against the Reign. He has made some good stops of the kind you need your goaltender to make at this point. But he certainly hasn't been dominant the way Joonas Korpisalo was dominant through the first six games of the postseason, and it's clear the Reign feel they're this close to posting the kind of short-span, multiple-goal strikes on Forsberg that the Monsters have managed to hang on Budaj twice in two games.
- The third-period comebacks. Ontario has scored four third-period goals in the series (to the Monsters' one). You can argue that Lake Erie was simply trying to hold on to leads and wasn't thinking about scoring goals, but that's exactly the "playing not to lose" approach that more often than not ends badly. The Monsters have to continue trusting the elements that have gotten them to this point, even late in games: Speed, a superior transition game, and winning 50-50 puck battles.
- They're the defending champs for a reason. I don't want to keep harping on this, because it only means so much. But the fact is, there are more than a dozen guys on that Ontario roster who played for last season's Calder Cup champion Manchester Monarchs. They know what it takes to win in the playoffs, and they're using their third-period success so far as motivation and encouragement as the series heads to Cleveland. Conventional wisdom holds that a series doesn't really start until a home team loses a game. In this case, it may not really start until a home team wins a game.
OK, I'll stop now. The fact is, everyone in the AHL is standing up and taking notice of this exciting Lake Erie team. They've been called underrated, explosive, well-coached and just plain fast. And all of those things are true. The key is for them to stay consistent and continue their willingness to skate hard, take hits and absorb whatever Ontario cares to throw at them without panicking. They're clearly capable of winning this series, but the next two victories will likely be tougher to get than the first two.
COMING UP: Game 3 - Tuesday, May 24, 7 p.m. Eastern at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland