On a night when the Lake Erie Monsters turned in one of the few mediocre performances of what has otherwise been a magical postseason run, they were still good enough to beat the boys from Chocolate Town.
That, as much as anything, explains why the Blue Jackets' top minor-league affiliate has been all but unstoppable since mid-April. The Monsters' collective speed, skill and size has proven to be a combination that opponents, even on their best nights, have a difficult time beating.
The Hershey Bears found that out the hard way Monday evening, when Lake Erie's Oliver Bjorkstrand scored his second goal of the game just 1:20 into overtime, giving the Monsters a 3-2 victory and a 3-0 AHL Calder Cup Finals lead in front of a franchise-record playoff crowd of 12,935 fans at Quicken Loans Arena.
Lake Erie has so much momentum right now that you'd almost like to see them turn around and play the potential Cup-clinching game in 24 or 48 hours. But scheduling quirks, stemming mostly from the fact that they share an arena with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, make it such that Game 4 of the series won't be played until this Saturday, June 11th, at 7 p.m. at the Q.
No matter, though. You can bet that whenever the game is played, Hershey will likely come out with the same fire and drive it has shown throughout the series, and that the opportunistic Monsters will be up to the challenge of matching it.
What Columbus fans are seeing in these playoffs is a preview of what their team may look like just a couple of years down the road. To be sure, there were some players skating Monday night who are good bets to open the 2016-17 NHL season in Blue Jackets sweaters.
One of those, without a doubt, is Bjorkstrand. The 21-year-old wingman is now tied with teammate Lukas Sedlak for the AHL lead in playoff goals with nine, and has at times simply been playing at a level most AHL defenders can't match.
After Hershey managed to get an early shot past Anton Forsberg, it was Bjorkstrand who provided the tying goal nearly seven minutes into the game. Heading up ice on a 2-on-1 with Sedlak, Bjorkstrand skillfully one-timed a fluttering pass from Sedlak past Hershey goaltender Justin Peters.
That was cool. But do you know what was cooler? The second assist on the goal was credited to none other than enforcer par excellence Brett Gallant. Playing his first game since collapsing on the bench in mid-April with a heart ailment, Gallant made a heads-up play to shovel the puck ahead to Sedlak to create the odd-man rush. For all he does for his teammates off the stat sheet, it was gratifying to see Gallant notch a well-deserved point after missing so much time.
Lake Erie would take a brief 2-1 lead late in the second period when Daniel Zaar buried a one-timer from the left circle with the Monsters on the power play. Dean Kukan and the hard-working Alex Broadhurst drew the assists, but Hershey would come right back and tie it at 2 on a relatively tame Dustin Gazley shot 47 seconds later.
Truth be told, Forsberg probably should have stopped that shot. Truth be told again, Forsberg wasn't at his best Monday night, though he was named the second star of the game after making 17 saves. And in the end, all that matters is that he ran his playoff record to an AHL-best 8-0, with a 1.55 goals-against average and .944 save percentage.
Neither team managed to find the back of the net in the third period, setting up an overtime session that would last only a fraction as long as the intermission that preceded it. Bjorkstrand teamed with another young man who will likely be sporting Blue Jackets colors come October in Zach Werenski on the game-winner with just 80 seconds elapsed in OT.
After the Monsters won the faceoff in the left circle, the puck was drawn back to Steve Eminger, who immediately shuffled it over to Werenski at the center point. Werenski launched a wrist shot that never made it through, but Bjorkstrand was perfectly positioned in the slot to take a shot that just eluded Peters to the goaltender's left side, bringing the rest of the jubilant Monsters off their bench for yet another on-ice celebration.
And that was that. The Monsters will have to wait a little longer than they might prefer to try and clinch the series and the Cup, which will likely heighten the anticipation and excitement of a fan base that had seen very little winning over the previous eight seasons before the Lake Erie-Columbus affiliation brought a whole new group of kids to town last summer.
And what a chance those kids have now to leave their mark on Cleveland before some of them go seeking greater adventure in Columbus this fall.