Monsters itching to get back to action

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The North Division champion Cleveland Monsters have been out of game action for a week.

Meanwhile, the Belleville Senators and Toronto Marlies have been waging a best-of-three first-round playoff series.

Today, one of those clubs will earn the right to face the Monsters in the division semifinals. Game 3 at CAA Arena in Belleville is set for this afternoon (3 ET, AHLTV).

With the Columbus Blue Jackets not qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Cleveland roster was bolstered by the returns of no fewer than eight players for the final weekend of the regular season, a group highlighted by leading scorer Trey Fix-Wolansky, defenseman David Jiricek and goaltender Jet Greaves.

James Malatesta, Luca Del Bel Belluz, Nick Blankenburg, Mikael Pyythia, and Malcolm Subban were also back in the lineup as the Monsters swept a stretch of three road games in less than 48 hours last weekend to the franchise’s first division title.

Luca Pinelli, who turned 19 this month, has also joined Cleveland; the fourth-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft scored 48 goals for Ottawa in the Ontario Hockey League this season.

So while late-season recalls to the Blue Jackets were a time to leave an impression on the organization, so are the upcoming Calder Cup Playoffs, Cleveland’s first appearance in the postseason since 2019. Columbus is in the market for a new general manager after Jarmo Kekalainen was relieved of his duties in February, and spots on the NHL roster may well be open come training camp in September.

Monsters head coach Trent Vogelhuber played on Cleveland’s championship team in 2016, a run that was critical in propelling players like Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Sonny Milano, Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo to NHL careers. Vogelhuber has made sure to stress to his returning players just how important this spring will be.

“I know a lot of them I’ve talked to have been excited to get back to Cleveland and play in the playoffs” Vogelhuber said.

Vogelhuber also recognizes that playing out the final weeks of the regular season in Columbus is a much different task than competing for the Calder Cup in Cleveland. Roles vary. So do workloads. And the AHL playoffs afford little time to ease back into game action. The series against either Belleville or Toronto will be a best-of five series beginning on Wednesday; they have to be ready to go.

“I think that’s really it – the mindset and understanding of how hard and desperate you have to be,” Vogelhuber outlined. “And then communicating our expectations from the individuals as far as roles and the group as to what we need. It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s the first time I’ve gone through it (as a coach).”

Vogelhuber also has to manage those players who have been with the Monsters down the stretch and now may see their minutes cut or be pushed out of the lineup altogether. Those players need to remain ready.

“Your lineup is not locked in stone,” Vogelhuber said. “Every decision we make from this point going forward is what we feel as a coaching staff gives our group the best chance to win.

“I think it’s a good message for our group, for some of the young individuals, that nothing’s given here at this time of year.”