All on the line for Bears, Monsters in Game 7

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Cleveland Monsters have come this far. One mammoth step remains tonight, however, when the Eastern Conference Finals conclude one way or the other in Game 7 at Giant Center in Hershey (7 ET, AHLTV, NHL Network).

Once down three games to none in the series, the Monsters have won three consecutive games, including a wild 3-2 overtime finish in Game 6 on Monday.

Tonight’s winner gets a trip to the Calder Cup Finals to face Coachella Valley beginning Friday. For the defending Calder Cup champion Bears, it would mean a rematch of last year’s seven-game slugfest with the Firebirds. For the Monsters, it would be an improbable feat considering where they were a week ago.

Cleveland, the fifth team in AHL history to reach Game 7 after losing the opening three games of a Calder Cup Playoff series, is not just trying to make history tonight; they are trying to do it against a team that posted the second-best regular-season record in league history (53-14-0-5, .771). Even in winning the North Division title, the Monsters still finished 23 points behind Hershey.

But that was the regular season. The Monsters have shown that they can go toe-to-toe with the playoff-tested Bears, as shown by their late-game resilience in this series.

As a 1-1 battle in Game 6 stretched into the final minute of regulation, Hershey forward Joe Snively broke loose and tucked the puck past Cleveland goaltender Jet Greaves. With just 49.3 seconds on the clock, finally it seemed like the magic had ended for the Monsters.

Head coach Trent Vogelhuber immediately called timeout before the next faceoff.

“You have to manage emotions,” Vogelhuber outlined, “and you manage ups and downs. There’s nothing you can do about what happened. There’s still plenty of time for this group.

“So turn it over. We’ve got a shift to play.”

Greaves came off for a sixth attacker. Trey Fix-Wolansky won the faceoff, then managed to work the puck into the Hershey zone to allow the Monsters to set up for perhaps one last push. From there captain Brendan Gaunce, a force since returning from injury for Game 2, directed a corner shot with nearly no angle past Hunter Shepard with 32.9 seconds to go that sent the game to overtime.

Just as they had done in Games 1 and 2, the Monsters had staged a late rally at Giant Center to force overtime. But the first two times both ended in defeat.

Not this time. With a team of players blocking shots in front of him, Greaves stood in and fended off several dangerous Hershey chances in OT. Eventually the Monsters took back control before defenseman Jake Christiansen, back in the lineup after missing 10 games due to injury, took a pass at the left point, spun, and lofted a long shot through traffic that slipped past Shepard with 17:31 gone in overtime.

This one is going to Game 7.

“Proud but not surprised,” Vogelhuber said of his players. “You can’t guarantee results. I knew I could guarantee we were going to play. I just know how they are and why we’re in this position.

“I just say words, and I think what is most important is the guys that run the locker room are the ones that echo that. So when that happens on the bench, they say, ‘All right, guys, let’s go,’ and it takes the edge off the whole bench, and you go play. I don’t get them to do anything. It’s those guys in there that deserve the credit.”

Said Christiansen, who had been out since May 3, “They gave me the opportunity to come back and play. They’ve been grinding, winning games, doing everything they can. It’s a great group, a special group we’ve got.”

And for the Bears, they need to find answers quickly. Their bid to become the first AHL club to repeat as a Calder Cup champion since they did so in 2009 and 2010 is in danger now. Injuries have cost them defensemen Lucas Johansen and Aaron Ness. Forward Pierrick Dubé, who had 28 regular-season goals, has not played since Game 3. Ethen Frank has nine goals in 12 playoff games following a 29-goal season but exited midway through Game 6 and did not return.

But this is a Hershey team that has fought back before. There are plenty of holdovers from the 2023 team that was thoroughly outplayed on the road by the Firebirds in the first two games of last season’s Calder Cup Finals before responding with three straight home wins to take back control of the series. And down 2-0 late in the second period of Game 7, the Bears rallied to tie that contest and then win their 12th Calder Cup championship on Mike Vecchione’s overtime goal.

Nearly eight months after opening night, the Bears and Monsters are still playing on June 12. Through injuries, setbacks and repeated challenges, both teams are still standing.

“You focus on what is right in front of you,” Vogelhuber said.

What is right in front of both teams tonight is a trip to the Calder Cup Finals.

“So excited that we get another day together,” Christiansen said, “and another chance to try to go win a game.”