Saturday, 11 June 2016

Monsters Of Playoff Hockey

If you missed tonight's Game Four of the Calder Cup Final, you missed one of the best AHL games in a long time. Tied 0-0 going into the extra frame, the Hershey Bears and Lake Erie Monsters traded punches throughout the extra period as both teams had chances only to be turned away by Hershey's Justin Peters an Lake Erie's Anton Forsberg. The game would be decided with 1.9 seconds remaining in the overtime period, though, and Columbus has to be excited for the game-winning goal scorer because he looks like he's going to be a dynamic offensive threat in the NHL at some point!

With the Calder Cup Playoffs dedicated to Assistant Equipment Manager and Cleveland hockey icon Phil Simon who battled leukemia for six years before finally succumbing to the disease on June 9 at the age of 83, the Lake Erie Monsters seemed focused and driven on winning the Calder Cup. Simon was a hockey icon in the city of Cleveland, serving as stick boy for the AHL's Cleveland Barons through their first iteration in the city, and also saw time with the club as the visiting locker room attendant, equipment assistant, goal judge and Assistant Equipment Manager for several Cleveland teams, including the IHL's Cleveland Lumberjacks and the current Monsters. He personified Cleveland hockey, and the Monsters made sure he would not be forgotten in their run to the Calder Cup!

One of the cooler things that I've seen a team do is institute their own tradition regarding the number of wins needed. There are lots of teams who have something they do to count down the wins, but Lake Erie made it a public event as they spray-painted an "X" after each win on the number of wins needed! With four wins remaining to capture the Calder Cup, the Western Conference Champion Lake Erie Monsters went into the Calder Cup on a mission to bring home Cleveland's first pro hockey title since 1964!

Goaltender Anton Forsberg was an absolute beast in these playoffs. The 29 year-old Swedish goaltender took over for Joonas Korpisalo following a 6-1 loss in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs and never looked back. Forsberg went 9-0 in the playoffs in ten appearances, recording a 1.34 GAA and a .949 save percentage in helping the Monsters oust the Griffins before sweeping the Ontario Reign and Hershey Bears. He won four overtime games, including a double-overtime game against Ontario, and won six one-goal games in his nine victories. To say that Forsberg was on his game might be an understatement!

The game- and Calder Cup-winning goal was scored by Oliver Bjorkstrand, and this young lad had himself a whale of a playoff campaign. Besides scoring with 1.9 seconds remaining in the overtime period - posted below for those that missed it - Bjorkstrand was handed the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the MVP in the Calder Cup Playoffs after posting 10 goals and six assists for 16 points in 17 games. On top of those stats, he also tied an AHL record with six game-winning goals and set a new AHL mark with three overtime goals in a single postseason! The kid looks like he's going to be a legitimate superstar, and he's already earned himself a Memorial Cup with Portland and now a Calder Cup with Lake Erie!

Here's the Cup-winning goal as promised!
Did you make note of who was on the ice with Bjorkstrand? If you didn't, the other players included Zach Werenski, Lukas Sedlak, and Steve Eminger. That Steve Eminger.

The former New York Ranger, Washington Capital, and various-other-teams-where-he-had-a-cup-of-coffee Steve Eminger. The veteran defenceman was looking to extend his NHL career when the Lake Erie Monsters, needing some temporary defensive relief while injuries had Monsters playing with the Blue Jackets, came calling on January 21 with a 25-game professional tryout contract. The former 12th-overall pick of the Capitals was brought in to provide some veteran defensive help, but he turned into a leader on this club as he helped the youthful Monsters play some inspired hockey in going 24-4 over its final 28 games, and an AHL record 15-2 in a four-round playoff campaign.

How about head coach Jared Bednar? He became the second coach to capture both a Calder Cup and an ECHL Kelly Cup, joining Bruce Boudreau as the only two men to do so. The Yorkton, Saskatchewan native had a decent hockey career bouncing around the AHL, IHL, and ECHL as a defenceman, putting up respectable point totals where ever he played.

After winning the Kelly Cup in 2008-09 as a second-year head coach with the South Carolina Stingrays, Bednar took an assistant coach position with Abbotsford Heat before moving into a head coach position with the former AHL Peoria Rivermen. He missed the playoffs in his second season with Peoria, was relieved of his duties, and moved into an assistant coaching role with the Springfield Falcons. He missed the playoffs in 2014-15 after being promoted to the head coach role with the Falcons, and moved with Columbus' affiliate from Springfield to Cleveland. For a man whose career has been anything but stable, Bednar has the experience and the credentials that should make him a candidate for an NHL head coach position in the near future.

When you look at the roster of the Monsters, you have to be impressed with the youth and experience they assembled and how coach Bednar rolled out that combination night after night to find a winning chemistry. Their defence includes Werenski, Dillon Heatherington, and Justin Falk. Their forwards include Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, and Kerby Rychel. The Blue Jackets have some excellent kids playing for their AHL affiliate, and most of them look ready to take a shot at an NHL roster spot. That fact may very well be a major factor in the Blue Jackets trying to move Scott Hartnell.

Congratulations to the Lake Erie Monsters on an incredible season! Winning the Calder Cup isn't easy, especially when you consider they won 15 of 17 games in the playoffs, but to the victors go the spoils! It was well-earned and well-deserved, Cleveland, so enjoy being the best in the AHL for a full season!

Could we see a repeat next season? It's very possible with the talent that Columbus has assembled and the fact that they have the third-overall pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft! This is one team that has a very bright future!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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