Monsters still on ropes, but punching back heading into Game 6

Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The numbers say that the Cleveland Monsters probably should not still be playing.

But Hershey Bears forward Garrett Roe called this one early. He knew what the Bears were in for.

“It’s kind of like a heavyweight bout,” Roe said following Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, in which Hershey won a second straight overtime game to take a 2-0 series lead. “Just taking swings and throwing punches.”

When Roe made that comparison, the defending Calder Cup champion Bears had just survived close calls in which the Monsters forced overtime with late tying goals in both Game 1 and Game 2.

Hershey used a burst of three goals in less than three minutes to deal Cleveland a 6-2 loss in Game 3, chasing the Monsters’ All-Star goaltender Jet Greaves from net in the process.

But a series that looked like it was heading for a Hershey sweep now sees the pendulum swinging back Cleveland’s way. Greaves rebounded in Game 4 with a 33-save effort as the Monsters scratched out a 3-2 victory. And in Game 5 on Saturday night, Hershey scored first before the Monsters unleashed five unanswered goals to roll to a 5-1 win.

Before this series, only 20 of 141 teams in Calder Cup Playoff history – just 14.2 percent – had ever made it even to a Game 6 after going down 3-0 in a series. Cleveland has joined that select group.

Still down three games to two, the Monsters now have to go into Giant Center and do something no visiting team has done all postseason – win a game. The Bears are 6-0 on home ice in these playoffs, and have won nine straight home playoff games going back to last year’s conference finals.

Only three teams in AHL history have ever won a series after losing the first three games. A few things have changed for the Monsters since this series started, however, as they try to become that fourth team to do so.

Start with captain Brendan Gaunce. An injury sustained while on recall to Columbus late in the regular season had sidelined him for seven weeks, but he returned to the Monsters lineup for Game 2 in Hershey and has been an anchor at center, picking up four points in four games including his two-goal, one-assist performance in Game 5.

Cleveland also added a top-flight prospect to their blue line for Game 4 as Denton Mateychuk, the 12th overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and this season’s Western Hockey League top defenseman, made his pro debut after his junior season with Moose Jaw came to an end. Head coach Trent Vogelhuber inserted the 19-year-old Mateychuk on a pairing with steady Marcus Björk, a move that has paid off in the past two contests. Mateychuk is an elite skater, sees the ice well, and has added another offensive element to the Cleveland back end that has thrown the Bears a mid-series curveball.

Along with David Jiricek, the sixth overall pick in that same 2022 class, the Monsters now have two top young talents contributing on defense who figure to be a significant part of the future in Columbus before long.

Jiricek also continues to show how he can dominate at times. Just 20 years old but with a combined 131 regular-season games at the NHL and AHL levels, he has had a breakout performance on this spring’s playoff run, tying for second among AHL blueliners with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 12 playoff games. Jiricek has also generated 31 shots on goal – 21 in the five games against Hershey so far.

“Getting to know [Jiricek] the past two years, the bigger the game, the more fun he’s having, the better the player he is,” Vogelhuber said following Game 2.

And then there is Greaves. After a standout regular season and helping to lead the Monsters to series wins against Belleville and Syracuse, the Bears greeted him with 13 goals on 90 shots (.856) in the first three games. He was relieved by Malcolm Subban for the third period of Game 3 before returning to start Game 4, and since then Greaves has stopped 66 of 69 Hershey shots (.957).

Vogelhuber also said that his players needed to avoid penalty trouble after the Bears went 6-for-18 on the power play through the first three games. Cleveland has gone shorthanded just six times in the past two games, allowing only one power-play goal.

Add up those elements and more, and the Monsters have pushed a Hershey opponent that churned out 53 wins and 111 points in the regular season to tonight’s Game 6. The Adirondack Red Wings came back to win a 1989 playoff series against the Bears after losing the first three games; a win tonight would put the Monsters in position to duplicate that feat.

But Vogelhuber always stresses playing the game that is in front of his team.

For the Monsters, that game is tonight.