A Monster Postseason

The AHL has a first-time champion for a sixth straight year, after the Lake Erie Monsters completed a four-game Finals sweep of the Hershey Bears Saturday night, for the Monster franchise’s first Calder Cup title.

The Monsters, who had never won even a playoff series in seven years of existence before this spring, followed the time-honored championship script of getting hot down the stretch of the regular season and carrying that momentum through a dominant playoff run.  Lake Erie went 9-1-1-0 in its last 11 regular-season games and then was 15-2 in the postseason, with their two defeats coming in back-to-back games in the second round against Grand Rapids, after the Monsters had charged to a three-games-to-none lead in that series.  In addition to the sweep in the Finals vs. the Bears, who had ousted the regular-season champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Finals, Lake Erie also swept the defending-champion Ontario Reign in the Western Finals and the Rockford IceHogs in the first round.

(Photo Courtesy of lakeeriemonsters.com)

(Photo Courtesy of lakeeriemonsters.com)

Head Coach Jared Bednar’s Monsters capped the triumph in thrilling fashion, winning the decisive Game Four over Hershey on an overtime goal by forward Oliver Bjorkstrand with 1.9 seconds left in the extra session, in front of a sellout crowd at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena of 19,665, the second-largest attendance ever recorded at an AHL postseason game.  The game-winner was Bjorkstrand’s sixth of the playoffs, which tied a league record, and an all-time Calder Cup best third overtime goal of the rookie’s postseason.

“The way this team came together, the selflessness, we got so tight,” Lake Erie captain Ryan Craig said to the media after the Cup-winning victory.  “We knew we had a talented group right from the start, but you don’t know how long it’s going to take to come together. This group committed, and so many guys played a part of this.”

Indeed, the parent Columbus Blue Jackets have to be ecstatic about how thoroughly their multiple young prospects stepped up to carry the Monsters to their championship.  In addition to Bjorkstrand, whose league-leading ten playoff goals, and penchant for getting them at the most important times, earned him the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the AHL’s playoff MVP, fellow rookies Zach Werenski (an 18-year-old who only joined Lake Erie after the conclusion of his Sophomore season at the University of Michigan), Markus Hannikainen and Sonny Milano all played big postseason roles for the Monsters, and except for the 34-year-old Craig, none of Lake Erie’s top ten playoff scorers is older than 23.

The Monsters were also young in goal, with 22-year-old Swedish import Anton Forsberg and 21-year-old Finnish native Joonas Korpisalo, and an interesting story line played out in that aspect as well.  Korpisalo got the call in Lake Erie’s first eight playoff outings, but after he was pulled late in a 6-1 loss to Grand Rapids in Game Five of the second round, Forsberg took over and went 9-0 the rest of the way, with a microscopic 1.34 goals-against average and a 94.9% save percentage.

It was almost as if the Monsters, collectively, could do no wrong.  They were a good defensive team all year, giving up the third-fewest regular-season goals in the league, but their offense was fair-to-middling until the postseason, when players like Bjorkstrand, Craig (3-10-13) and Lukas Sedlak (9-7-16) took their games to new levels to lead Lake Erie to a league-best 3.47 goals-per-game.

If a number of these Monster names sound familiar to Wolf Pack fans, that is because the seeds of this playoff triumph were largely sown in Springfield, where the Blue Jackets’ affiliation resided for five years before moving to Cleveland this past season.  Ironically, the previous year’s Springfield club, also coached by Bednar, followed an almost completely opposite trajectory from that of the Lake Erie champion.  The 2014-15 Falcons were one of the better teams in the league in the first half and were sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings in mid-January, before losing Forsberg to an injury and stumbling down the stretch, ultimately missing out on the playoffs by a margin of one point.

There was one Wolf Pack connection to the Calder Cup-champion squad, albeit a tenuous one.  Thirteenth-year pro defenseman Steve Eminger, who had 1-7-8 in 13 postseason games for Lake Erie, played four games for the Connecticut Whale in 2012-13, his last of three seasons in the New York Ranger organization.

So congratulations to the Monsters, and to the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, as we flip the switch into full off-season mode.

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