It's absolutely not over yet. And if any team in the AHL is capable of ripping off four quick wins in a row, it's the Grand Rapids Griffins.
All of that said, good Lord, I did not see the juggernaut that is the 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters coming.
Almost no one did. That's why Patrick Williams, who covers the AHL for NHL.com, tweeted this out Sunday evening (and he meant it as a compliment): "Lake Erie is the most undercover team remaining in the Calder Cup Playoffs by a landslide."
He's probably right. Most of the other seven teams still alive have certain pedigrees, or at least they put themselves on the map in high-profile fashion during the regular season.
But the Monsters? For a while there, it wasn't 100% certain they were even going to make the playoffs.
Then suddenly, round about late March, things started clicking. Guys started returning from NHL duty in Columbus. Line combinations solidified. Joonas Korpisalo elevated an already-solid goaltending situation to new heights. Young phenom Zach Werenski arrived from the University of Michigan. And the Monsters began playing with a sense of order and purpose that starts at the top with Coach Jared Bednar and his assistants and flows down through team captain Ryan Craig and acknowledged leaders like Trent Vogelhuber.
The Monsters not only started winning, they started winning in bunches.
Since March 24, when you count regular-season and playoff games together, the Monsters have gone 15-1-1-0. I kid you not: 15-1-1-0. They are also 6-0 in the playoffs and have won nine consecutive games overall.
I said last week I wasn't going to slap the "Team of Destiny" tag on these guys, and I'm still not going to do it. Right now they're up 3-0 on Grand Rapids in a best-of-seven division finals series. They obviously need to close that out first, which won't be easy, and then they would face the winner of the Ontario-San Diego series. Both of those opponents would be a major challenge for the young Monsters.
But like most teams that make deep postseason runs, there's something about the poised intensity with which this team plays that's difficult to ignore. Whatever "it" is that separates winners from losers in the postseason, the Monsters seem to have it. In spades.
Let me just run down the first three games of this Grand Rapids series for you below and I think you'll see what I mean:
GAME 1 - Thursday, May 5
Lake Erie 3, Grand Rapids 2 (OT)
That, I submit, is all that needs to be said. Take a look at the power-play game-winner off the stick of the Danish sniper Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Before they got to that point (12:23 of the overtime period), though, the Monsters had to:
- Overcome an early-second-period goal by Griffins arch-nemesis Eric Tangradi that opened the scoring
- Collect themselves after giving up a game-tying shorthander late in that middle period
- Stop a penalty shot attempt by Grand Rapids' Andy Miele with 35 frickin' seconds left in regulation for deliberately knocking the net off its moorings. Stick taps to Korpisalo for making the save. You can take a look at the play here (and you really should).
Lake Erie's two second-period goals were tallied by the offensive force that is Lukas Sedlak and the steady Alex Broadhurst. Sedklak's marker came off a rebound in front at even strength, while Broadhurst tapped a puck in a goalmouth scramble on the power play that danced precariously along the goal line before helpful Griffins goaltender Tom McCollum, unaware of the puck's exact location and diving backwards, helpfully swept it into the net with his glove.
A good start.
GAME 2 - Saturday, May 7
Lake Erie 4, Grand Rapids 3
This one was...kind of improbable. But then again, all memorable postseason runs are in some ways improbable. In this case, the Monsters took a 2-0 lead on first-period power-play goals from Sonny Milano and Steve Eminger, then proceeded to give the momentum right back to Grand Rapids by surrendering a power-play tally with only 3.4 seconds left in the first, then two more goals in the second to give the Griffins a 3-2 lead.
Not only that, but Grand Rapids appeared to have taken the game over and was controlling the play for long stretches. Try as they might, the Monsters simply couldn't get one past McCollum.
Until they actually did. Twice. In the final six minutes of the third period.
First it was Captain Craig, shelving one from the doorstop on a beautiful, no-look feed from behind the net from Vogelhuber. That made it 3-3 with 5:50 to go in regulation.
At that point you're thinking, "OK, overtime. Cool. We give ourselves a chance."
But the Monsters would have none of that. Less than three minutes later, Daniel Zaar took a feed near the top of the left circle from (who else?) Vogelhuber, hesitated a second, and launched a shot through traffic that found twine. 4-3 Monsters.
Not that the drama was quite over, mind you. Nick Moutrey, seeing his first playoff action in place of the injured Markus Hannikainen, took an interference penalty with 2:04 to play. Grand Rapids soon pulled McCollum to set up the 6-on-4, but Lake Erie hung on to complete a two-game home-ice sweep.
GAME 3 - Sunday, May 8
Lake Erie 2, Grand Rapids 1
And then there was this game, the first of the series to be played at Grand Rapids' Van Andel Arena. There seemed to be a certain feeling among Griffins players and fans that the better team wasn't winning the series, and that this game was the first step toward setting the world back on its rightful course.
But Grand Rapids never led. In fact, they trailed for the final 59 minutes and 43 seconds as Josh Anderson stole the puck near the Grand Rapids blue line, skated in alone on McCollum and potted a wrister from the right circle on the first shot of the game to give Lake Erie a 1-0 lead just 17 seconds in.
The Monsters would make it 2-0 eight minutes into the second period when Bjorkstrand sent a long pass cross-ice to an oncoming Werenski, who had a lot of net at which to shoot and buried it. Werenski, you will note, leads the Monsters in scoring this series with a goal and two assists. So far he has more than passed the "Yeah, But How Will He Do in the Pros?" test.
Grand Rapids' Ryan Sproul would solve Korpisalo for a goal late in the second period, and the Griffins went at it hammer and tongs in the third in a desperate attempt to tie it, but the Monsters held on. Korpisalo improved to an AHL-best 6-0 in the playoffs, making some unbelievable saves along the way and leaving Blue Jackets fans feeling giddy with anticipation over what he might do at the NHL level next season.
Game 4 of the series is Tuesday night in Grand Rapids. The Griffins are a streaky team that just needs a little spark to get hot, and you can be sure the Monsters know it. They'll pull out all the stops in an attempt to finish the Griffins off in four and become the first Cleveland hockey team to reach a conference finals since the 1996-97 Cleveland Lumberjacks.
Stay tuned, kids. This ride isn't over yet.