19,665 fans -- a franchise record -- jammed Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night to see if the Lake Erie Monsters could do what the Indians, Browns, Cavaliers and Barons have failed to do since 1964 -- bring a professional sports championship to Cleveland. In fact, it was the second-largest crowd ever to witness an AHL game. What they saw was an amazing, tense and ultimately spectacular 1 - 0 overtime victory, with Oliver Bjorkstrand notching the clincher with just 1.9 seconds left in the first OT -- his improbable sixth game winning goal in the playoffs. While words might prove inadequate, let's review what that crowd saw on this night.,
Period One: Stylish Standoff
The Bears and Monsters played to a scoreless draw in the first, but that comes nowhere close to telling the story. Even though they held only a 9 - 6 shot advantage for the opening frame, the Monsters dominated play in virtually every facet. Starting off with a big physical push, the Monsters outraced Hershey to every puck, maintained possession for extended lengths of time, and looked remarkably calm and coordinated in the process. The two primary Bears chances came off of uncharacteristic mistakes. The first came when Josh Anderson made a great play in the offensive end, only to be stymied by Hershey's Justin Peters, who made some great saves -- and led a charmed life -- throughout the period. Unfortunately, the Monsters got trapped deep, and a quick outlet resulted in a 4-on-1 break. Only a hustling Lukas Sedlak prevented disaster, ultimately forcing a shot from the right circle that Forsberg saw all the way. The other Hershey chance came off an ill-advised pass by Michael Chaput in his own zone, but again Forsberg rose to the challenge.
The rest was all Monsters. Lukas Sedlak was all over the ice -- in both ends -- and Oliver Bjorkstrand had several solid chances. Zach Werenski showed that he is indeed ready for prime time through two eye-popping plays. Early in the period, Werenski calmly pulled the puck back, allowing time for a shift change, then quickly caromed a perfect pass off the boards to a streaking Sonny Milano. Peters just managed to get a shoulder on Milano's backhand, which then rattled off the post. Later in the period, Werenski stick handled into the offensive zone through three Hershey defenders, creating yet another opportunity for the home club. Daniel Zaar also figured prominently in the proceedings, sharing shooting honors with Milano and Sedlak at two apiece.
In short, the only answer that Hershey appeared to have for Lake Erie's speed was the terrific play of Justin Peters in net. The Monsters would look to start converting their chances in the second, while keeping their play otherwise intact.
Period Two: Reprise
If you likes the opening frame, you had to love the second. The proceedings opened with the Monsters creating a two-on-one opportunity with Trent Vogelhuber and Sonny Milano. Only a remarkable leaping effort by Justin Peters on Milano's roof effort prevented the go ahead goal. Peters actually caught the puck with the shaft of his stick. That set the tone for a period in which the Monsters would outshoot Hershey 12 - 6, using pretty much the same formula as in the first.
To be sure, Hershey brought more game in this one, and was finally able to establish some measure of possession in the offensive zone. Their best chance came off of a hard point shot that resulted in a juicy rebound off Forsberg's pad, right to a waiting Bears stick to Forsberg's right. Only a sprawling Jamie Sifers prevented the Bears from jumping out to a lead.
Halfway through the period, the Monsters created consecutive breakaways. On the first, Oliver Bjorkstrand simply lost the handle on the puck as he got to the net, with the puck ending up harmlessly bouncing off of Peters' right pad. Seconds later, Sedlak was sprung, but could not beat Peters.
The officiating took its own time in the spotlight. At the 15:30 mark, Milano took a vicious hit in the center of the ice in the offensive zone, long after the puck was gone. No whistle, no stoppage, even though Milano lay sprawled on the ice. Remarkably, he got up and participated in the play for the duration of the shift. That shift ended in the first call of the game -- a gratuitous slash to the calf of Daniel Zaar by Aaron Ness. Though chances abounded, the Monsters could not solve Peters with the extra man. With 1:28 left, they surrendered a power play of their own with a "too many men" call. The period ended with no damage, but the third would start with 32 more seconds of power play for the Bears.
The task for the third was simple -- keep the pressure on, avoid letting frustration get the better of them, and maintain the sound defensive play of the first two.
Period 3: Tightness Takes Over
After two period of fast, pressure hockey, the pressure was bound to ratchet up, and it did in the third. Shots on goal were just 6 - 4 in favor of Lake Erie for the period, indicating that the clubs were being careful not to make the fatal mistake. While the Monsters have room for error with a 3 - 0 series lead, the Bears have no such luxury. The play in the third reflected that disparity, though the Monsters were perhaps a bit more cautious than necessary. Stick with what works, and Lake Erie let up on the gas a bit in the period. The slower pace seemed to work to the Bears' advantage, allowing more time and space, and decreasing the Monsters' odd man rushes.
It was just such a period of extended possession that enabled Hershey to have its best chance of the evening. Keeping the puck moving around the offensive zone, the Bears forced T.J. Tynan down to the ice twice, in an effort to block the shooting/passing lanes. The second time enabled the Bears to have a clear lane to the net, forcing Tynan to take a tripping penalty. Fortunately, the penalty kill was terrific, as Hershey did not mount a serious threat during the power play. Hershey returned the favor just four minutes later, sporting too many men on the ice, but Lake Erie similarly could not take advantage. The remainder of the period was largely a combination of neutral zone battles and dump & chase hockey, which does not really succeed when the opponent is rapidly retreating in their own zone.
Entering the extra period, Zach Werenski led the Monsters with five shots on goal, followed by Sedlak and Anderson with four each, while Milano and Bjorkstrand each had three. Time for the Monsters to return to their speed game, and put lots of rubber on net.
Overtime -- The Improbable Becomes the Impossible
The first 19:58.1 of the overtime period was a simple example of "Anything you can do, I can do better" between Justin Peters and Anton Forsberg. As the skaters in front of them began to tire, the inevitable mistakes were made. Assignments were missed, sticks were off the ice, and reactions were slowed. Those things create chances, and to be absolutely fair, as the OT period progressed, Hershey seemed to be the fresher squad. More and more, the missed opportunities of earlier in the game appeared to be coming back to haunt the Monsters. Fortunately, Forsberg was there to prevent any damage. The Bears outshot the Monsters 7 - 6 in the frame, winning that battle for the first time all night. With each improbable save that Justin Peters made (including a ridiculous stop of a seemingly certain backhand goal by Daniel Zaar), the Bears seemed to gain energy. But their subsequent efforts were denied through some equally improbable stops by Forsberg, including a save with his mask. With time ticking down, it appeared that the Monsters would get a reprieve just in time to gather themselves and regroup for the second OT. Then the improbable became the impossible.
With 11.1 seconds left in the overtime frame, the Bears were whistled for icing. It was a seemingly innocuous moment, given the fact that over 79 minutes of scoreless hockey had been played, and it seemed unlikely that 11.1 seconds would make a difference. Ever the optimist, the Monsters' color guy noted that all they had to do was win the face-off cleanly, get the puck on net, and plenty of time remained for good things to happen. He likely did not understand how prophetic he was.
Lake Erie won the draw, and got the puck back to the point. Werenski put the puck on the net, where the stop was made, but not held. A massive scrum ensued in the crease, with the puck eluding all efforts to corral it. Suddenly, the puck squirted out of the crowd along the goal line to Peters' left, where Bjorkstrand was waiting. Seemingly surprised by the puck finding him, he reached behind him to nab it, and fired the puck along the goal line toward the net. The puck hit the near post, caromed off the back of Peters' left pad, and found the back of the net. The clock read 1.9, and bedlam ensued. For the record, Sedlak and Werenski earned the assists on the goal, which was fitting tribute to their efforts on this night, and throughout the playoffs.
As the celebration spread, Oliver Bjorkstrand accepted the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. Captain Ryan Craig then accepted a black marker from AHL President/CEO David Andrews, used to put the final "X" across the Calder Cup Trophy image on the boards, culminating the series of "X"s that had counted down the remaining games in the playoffs. Only then did Craig accept the Calder Cup itself, and the real celebration began. Image of the night: Josh Anderson helping John Ramage skate the puck, as Ramage had injured his arm and could not hold it up on his own.
Wrapping It Up
A magnificent conclusion to what was an improbable 15 - 2 playoff run for the Monsters. While there are too many story lines to summarize here, some high points are worthy of note. First, it is a tremendous feel good story for Cleveland, the Monsters' franchise, and the entire Blue Jackets organization. John Tortorella had to be drooling watching the fast but positionally sound play that they youngsters displayed. John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäläinen have to be similarly gleeful to see their draft picks performing at such a high level, reaching the pinnacle of the prospect climb. Adding to the pleasure was the emergence of Anton Forsberg, Daniel Zaar and Zach Werenski, among others. That's going to create meaningful competition come September, and some significant flexibility in the moves that will be coming before then. Suffice it to say that Youth Will Be Served.
Congratulations to the Monsters, the City of Cleveland, the Blue Jackets and hockey fans throughout Ohio. On this night in June, no star shines brighter. Well done. Stay tuned.