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Lake Erie one win away from Calder Cup finals

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Monsters use the same script to beat the Ontario Reign yet again, take 3-0 series lead

John Saraya

When these playoffs began, there was a certain sense among Lake Erie Monsters fans of just being happy to be there.

Not anymore.

Now, given what the Monsters have accomplished this postseason (and more importantly the way they've accomplished it), the fans, the coaching staff and certainly the players themselves want more.

Suddenly, talk of Cleveland's first AHL Calder Cup championship since 1964 is becoming real.

That dream took another step closer to reality Tuesday night, as the Monsters  for the third game in a row  scored early in spurts and held off the Ontario Reign, 4-0. Lake Erie will look for a sweep of the best-of-seven series Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena.

There's a lot to this series you might classify as "stunning," not the least of which is the fact that Lake Erie is on the brink of sweeping the team that posted the Western Conference's best record during the regular season. And they moved closer to doing it Tuesday by chasing Peter Budaj, the AHL's best goaltender this year, from the game after two periods.

Perhaps most amazingly, the first three games of the series have in some ways been carbon copies of one another. ("Carbon copy," kids. It means they were identical. Ask your parents. Or maybe more appropriately, your grandparents.)

In Game 1, the Monsters scored three goals in one stretch of just over 2 minutes. In Game 2, it was two goals in 12 seconds. In Tuesday's Game 3, it was three goals in a comparatively pedestrian 4:27 of the first period that gave them a lead they would never come close to relinquishing.

Tallying those goals were three guys whose names have become very familiar to fans of the Monsters and opposing teams alike this postseason: Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano and Josh Anderson.

Bjorskstrand's goal, his fifth of the playoffs, was perhaps the most impressive. Bjorkstrand intercepted a Reign clearing attempt in the neutral zone, skated the puck over the line, bounced off two Ontario defenders, and lifted a backhander over Budaj for an unassisted beauty to open the scoring six minutes into the game.

No one in Monsters Land wants to think about this right now, but if you were to ask me for the names of two guys who almost certainly won't be in Cleveland this fall because they'll be wearing Blue Jackets sweaters, I would unhesitatingly say Bjorkstrand and Zach Werenski.

Speaking of Werenski, the kid was held off the scoresheet for one of the few times on Tuesday, but he's still tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with Anderson and Lukas Sedlak. All three guys have 11 points in 12 games.

Markus Hannikainen would add an insurance tally for Lake Erie in the second period, leading to Budaj's benching in favor of Michael Houser to start the third. Houser stopped all six shots he faced in the final period, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him in net for Ontario come Thursday, if for no other reason than to shake things up and see if he can provide a bit of a spark to a Reign team that sorely needs it.

So yeah, the offense was great. But we haven't even mentioned the #1 star of the game yet: Monsters goalie Anton Forsberg. Forsberg notched Lake Erie's first shutout of the playoffs, and he was magnificent in the process. If you didn't see the game and just looked at the stats, you might assume the Monsters dominated the proceedings. But Ontario buzzed the Lake Erie net for long stretches, including a few smothering shifts to open the game.

The one thing the Reign couldn't solve was Forsberg and his quick glove hand. He made 26 saves and ensured that everything Lake Erie did in the offensive zone wouldn't go for naught when the puck was in the defensive end of the ice. I said before that Forsberg was good but not necessarily great in the first two games of the series. On Tuesday he was great, no doubt about it.

I saw Cleveland hockey legend Jock Callender between the second and third periods when the Monsters were up 4-0, and I said to him, "Well, you can't ask for much more than that." He replied, "They can't skate with us. It's as simple as that." And he was right, of course. The Monsters' speed continues to confound an Ontario team that is still searching for answers.

We'll find out Thursday night if they come up with any.