By Tony Brown | AHL On The Beat Archive
No matter the season, no matter the sport, a lengthy campaign that culminates in a postseason berth is an exercise in validation, but the Lake Erie Monsters, playoff-bound for just the second time in the franchise’s nine-year history, have their sights set on more than a mere invitation to the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Winners of nine of their final 11 regular-season games, and each of their final three contests entering the postseason, the Monsters wrapped the 2015-16 campaign at 43-22-6-5 and established new franchise records for regular-season points (97) and home victories (25). After finishing the year in second-place in the Central Division and ranked third in the Western Conference, Lake Erie drew a first-round matchup vs. the Rockford IceHogs in a best-of-five game Central Division Semi-Final series that brings with it a new brand of hockey, the likes of which many Monsters players have yet to experience in their careers.
“It’s just going to get more intense, it’s going to get more physical, every play is going to get that much more important,” explained Monsters Head Coach Jared Bednar on Wednesday. “Especially for our younger guys who haven’t experienced it, our intensity level is going to have to go up and we’re going to have to play the best hockey we’ve played all year in order to advance. Our guys are aware of that and they’re looking forward to the challenge.”
According to Monsters captain Ryan Craig, a 13th-year pro, whether they like it or not, players are forced to see the game differently in the playoffs. “Everything’s magnified, but things also get simplified,” said Craig Wednesday. “Every puck battle becomes more important, the shot blocks become bigger, the sacrifices are greater…For us, it’s just a matter of putting our heads down and going to work.”
While the intensity builds and the stakes loom large, Craig says the most important thing for this Monsters team in the playoffs is to stick to the squad’s normal routine, one that’s been the foundation for consistent success all year. “We’re going to try really hard to have business as usual, especially for our younger guys,” outlined Craig. “What we’ve learned about our group through 76 games is that when we’re somewhat calm, ready to play and focused, we’re at our best and we’re going to try to maintain that going forward.”
Despite calls for normalcy, there is no denying that the lights shine brighter on the postseason stage and that makes for a special experience for every player. “Playoff hockey is awesome, there is absolutely nothing like it,” said third-year Monsters forward Alex Broadhurst on Wednesday. “Just being in the locker room and realizing you have butterflies…It’s fun, it’s exciting, you want to win, you want your teammates to do well and I think everyone really comes together and you play team hockey.”
Behind Broadhurst’s three-point effort in a 5-2 Monsters win on Wednesday, a hat trick from Monsters right wing Josh Anderson in a 5-1 victory in Thursday’s game two and a pair of rock-solid performances between the pipes for rookie goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, the Monsters built a two games to none series lead on the IceHogs at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford, Ill. last week and return home to Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland on Saturday with designs on an opening-round sweep of the ‘Hogs and a distinction no Monsters team has ever achieved – victors in a Calder Cup Playoff series.
“We’ve battled all year to get that extra game in our building,” said Bednar. “We’ve worked all season for home ice and now we have it and we have to take advantage of it.”