Lake Erie sweeps its way into Calder Cup finals
Red-hot Lukas Sedlak gets both goals, including the game-winner in double overtime to lead young Monsters into the championship round
What a time to be Lukas Sedlak.
What a time to be a Lake Erie Monster.
What a time to be a fan of Cleveland hockey (or of Columbus hockey, for that matter).
Despite playing what may have been its worst game of the series, Lake Erie went punch for punch with the top-seeded Ontario Reign for more than four periods Thursday night, ending it on Sedlak's second goal of the night 6:25 into the second overtime and completing a four-game sweep by the surging Monsters.
With the victory, Lake Erie has booked a spot in the 2016 AHL Calder Cup finals against the winner of the Hershey-Toronto series. Game 4 of that tilt is set for Friday night at 7:30 p.m., with Hershey holding a commanding 3-0 series lead.
Virtually no one could have predicted the tear that Lake Erie has gone on when this season began. There was hope in Cleveland with the brand new Blue Jackets affiliation, which brought a core of highly touted young talent to the North Coast. But this was a franchise that in eight previous AHL seasons had only qualified for the playoffs once. Any postseason appearance was going to bring a sense of accomplishment.
But just getting there clearly wasn't enough for this team, which has gone 11-2 in the postseason, sweeping both Rockford and Ontario and earning a hard-fought 4-2 series win over Grand Rapids. This marks the first time in exactly 50 years (since 1966) that a Cleveland team has skated in the Calder Cup finals.
And the man of the hour was none other than Sedlak, the 23-year-old Czech center and sixth-round draft pick of the Blue Jackets in 2011. Earlier this week it was announced that Sedlak had re-signed with the organization through next season, and he celebrated by scoring his team- and league-high seventh and eighth goals of the postseason to pace the Monsters.
Sedlak, who was all but nonexistent through the first half of the season, now has 18 goals in his past 23 games. He, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Anton Forsberg lead what is becoming an increasingly long list of heroes for Lake Erie over the past month-and-a-half of playoff hockey.
It was Anderson who made Sedlak's OT game-winner possible on Thursday. After getting absolutely crushed by a hard hit in the corner, Anderson popped back up, skated the puck to the top of the zone and fired a shot that was stopped by Ontario goaltender Peter Budaj.
The rebound lay just outside the crease in a mass of frantically flashing skates and sticks. Sedlak, who had just come onto the ice on a line change, skated straight into the morass, got his stick on the puck and popped it into the net, sending a Quicken Loans Arena crowd of 10,854 into a frenzy and bringing his jubilant teammates streaming off the bench for a well-deserved celebration.
Moments earlier, Forsberg made what will surely go down as one of the prettiest saves of these playoffs, stonewalling Ontario's Michael Mersch with his glove when Mersch was left all alone in front of the Lake Erie net.
(UPDATE: Our resident GIF wizard, Ryan Real, caught that save for us. You had to have seen it in real time to truly appreciate it, but it still looks pretty good here, don't you think?)
In the last two games of the series, Forsberg surrendered just one goal to the Reign, that coming early in the third period when he mishandled the puck trying to leave it at the side of the net for Dillon Heatherington. No matter, though, as Forsberg stopped all 41 of Ontario's other shots and established his place in the Lake Erie net after replacing Joonas Korpisalo in the middle of the Grand Rapids series.
(ANOTHER UPDATE: While we're all in GIF mode, I wanted you to see this defensive play by Zach Werenski, who spent the whole series doing stuff like this. The Reign forward sweeps into the zone and tries to use his body to create a scoring chance, only to be denied by a classic no-soup-for-you stick move on the part of Werenski. He's not just a forward sitting at the defensive end of the bench, folks.)
The Calder Cup finals schedule should be announced within a day or so of the conclusion of the Hershey-Toronto series. Either way, though, the Monsters will not have home ice since they finished with a lower winning percentage than both the Bears and Marlies.
You get the feeling, though, that it doesn't phase them one way or another. I said a couple of weeks ago I wasn't going to slap the "team of destiny" label on them. But they've since proven that they deserve it.
Stay tuned. Team Destiny goes for the title soon.