There is every reason to believe the Lake Erie Monsters, playing in just the second postseason in their franchise history, have enough in the tank to finish off these playoffs by hoisting the AHL's Calder Cup.
There is also every reason to believe the perenially successful Hershey Bears will spoil the party and be the team that finally brings the high-flying Monsters back to reality.
That's what happens when you take two squads who haven't played each other in three years and pit them against one another in a best-of-seven championship series: The possibilities are endless.
Maybe I'm just imposing my own lack of insight into this series onto everyone else, but I just...well, much like almost no one predicted the Monsters to sweep the Ontario Reign in the Western Conference finals, this Lake Erie-Hershey match-up is one that seems to defy analysis and prediction.
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way in the form of history.
On the one hand you have Hershey, a franchise that is synonymous with winning in the AHL. And high attendance. The Bears top the league's attendance list every year without exception. They routinely average more than 9,000 fans a game – though some would counter that's because there's nothing else to do in Hershey once you're sick of riding roller coasters and eating chocolate (not me of course...I meant other people).
But the main reason the fans keep coming through the turnstiles in Hershey is because the Bears have won an awful lot of games over the last several decades. They defeated the top-seeded Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference finals to mark the 70th playoff series win in their history. They have also won 11 Calder Cups.
And while the Monsters themselves have never won a Calder, the Cup is not foreign to the city of Cleveland. The old Cleveland Barons won nine of 'em, including one 75 years ago when they beat Hershey in five games. The AHL is making much of the fact that it has these two hockey history-rich cities playing for its championship this year.
If you're a regular reader of this space, you know all about the Monsters by now. You know how Anton Forsberg has been a wall in goal since taking over for Joonas Korpisalo during the Grand Rapids series (a series that feels like it was played months ago now). You know how young defenseman Zach Werenski has made an immediate impact on the club with his skating and breakout abilities. You know how Lukas Sedlak seems to be scoring goals every time he touches the puck, how Oliver Bjorkstrand has made a habit of making big plays, and how Josh Anderson has turned these playoffs into his own personal coming-out party.
Most of all, you know that Lake Erie is a stellar 11-2 in the postseason, coming off a four-game sweep of an Ontario team that many assumed was going to cruise into the finals.
Of course, the same assumptions were made about Toronto, and Hershey took care of the Marlies in an efficient five games. How did they do it? Much like the Monsters, they did it by raising their level of play from good to great at just the right point in the year.
Bears goalie Justin Peters has played in more games (16) these playoffs than any other 'tender in the league. His goals-against average is a solid 1.95, and he has recorded two shutouts along the way. Forsberg, for comparison's sake, has a gaudy 1.30 GAA and a .955 save percentage, but he has accomplished those numbers in only six games.
Up front, Hershey has been led in playoff scoring by Cleveland-area native Carter Camper, who has 15 points in 17 games. Camper was born in Rocky River, Ohio, and played two seasons with the Cleveland Jr. Barons before a successful four-year collegiate career at Miami of Ohio.
The Bears also boast this year's AHL MVP in Chris Bourque. The 30-year-old left wing, the son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, has 10 points this postseason. Fun fact: Amazingly (at least to me), this is the ninth year in a row that the AHL's regular-season MVP has made it to the Calder Cup finals. I realize good players often equal good teams, but...how does that happen nine years in a row?
Anyway, the Bears also have a lot of talented young guys to complement Camper and Bourque in the likes of winger Jakub Vrana and blueliners Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos. Vrana and Bowey, in particular, rank highly on any list of top prospects within the Washington Capitals' system.
Talk to anyone who has watched Hershey play this year and they'll say many of the same things people are saying about the Monsters: They play with poise and control, they move the puck, and they kill penalties well.
The only difference, it seems, is experience. The Bears have more highly contributing veterans than the Monsters do, but then again, that has been the case throughout the playoffs. Lake Erie had one of the league's youngest rosters all year long and is used to playing teams with longer resumes.
One last time, then, let's break down the numbers before we stick our neck out and make a series prediction...
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
Playoff record: 11-2 - Series victories over Rockford (3-0), Grand Rapids (4-2) and Ontario (4-0)
Goals for: 211
Goals against: 188
NHL affilliate: Washington Capitals
Regular-season record: 43-21-5-7 (98 pts., .645 winning percentage)
Standings: 1st place Atlantic Division, 3rd place Eastern Conference
Playoff record: 11-6 - Series victories over Portland (3-2), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (4-3) and Toronto (4-1)
Goals for: 259
Goals against: 220
GAME 1: Wednesday, June 1st, at Hershey, 7 p.m. (TV - WUAB 43, Cleveland)
GAME 2: Friday, June 3rd, at Hershey, 7 p.m. (TV - WUAB 43, Cleveland)
GAME 3: Monday, June 6th, at Lake Erie, 7 p.m. (TV - Fox Sports Ohio)
GAME 4: Saturday, June 11th, at Lake Erie, 7 p.m. (TV - WUAB 43, Cleveland)
*GAME 5: Sunday, June 12th, at Lake Erie, 6 p.m. (TV - Fox Sports Ohio)
*GAME 6: Tuesday, June 14th, at Hershey, 7 p.m. (TV - TBD)
*GAME 7: Friday, June 17th, at Hershey, 7 p.m. (TV - TBD)
Two notes about the schedule:
- All games in the series can be viewed for free through AHL Live. Normally the league charges $10/game or $45/series, but the finals series is offered gratis.
- Hershey gets home ice in the series by virtue of a slightly better winning percentage.
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: Did not play
PLAYERS TO WATCH
- Playoff scoring leaders: Lukas Sedlak (8-5-13), Josh Anderson (7-5-12), Zach Werenski (4-7-11)
- Goaltender: Anton Forsberg (5-0, 1.30, .955)
- Playoff scoring leaders: Carter Camper (6-9-15), Jakub Vrana (7-6-13), Chris Bourque (4-6-10)
- Goaltender: Justin Peters (11-5, 1.95, .929)
Last round I predicted the Monsters would put up a valiant fight against an Ontario Reign team that posted the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season and had the league's top goalie, but that ultimately the Reign would prevail in six games. In the event, Lake Erie swept the series, though one or two of the games could easily have gone the other way.
In any case, what I learned is that regular-season stats are all but meaningless at this stage of the playoffs, and that it's the team that plays with the most confidence and cohesion that usually prevails. Both Hershey and Lake Erie possess confidence and cohesion to high degrees right now, along with solid coaching staffs to keep them focused.
So what will be the difference? The "it" factor, whatever you want to call "it." Every year throughout professional sports, you see teams celebrating championships that didn't finish near the top of the regular-season standings but managed to raise their games to new heights during the playoffs (the eighth-seeded 2012 Los Angeles Kings come readily to mind). These teams get it in ways that opponents with more talent often don't. They shrug off adversity and rise to the occasion.
I'm sure Hershey has done plenty of that this year. After all, they've had two playoff series go the distance. But no team in the AHL has transformed itself so completely from the regular season to the playoffs as the Lake Erie Monsters. The Monsters have made that good-to-great leap in ways that are tangible and measurable, as well as in ways that cannot be explained by anything other than good old-fashioned playoff magic.
This is a team that won't be denied. They're likely to lose some games, but you can be sure it won't phase them. Lake Erie will cap off its first playoff appearance in five years in grand style, bringing the Calder Cup back to Cleveland at about the same time the Cavs have a chance to capture the NBA's Larry O'Brien Trophy.
PREDICTION: Monsters in 6 games