‘They laid it on the line. That’s all you can ask.’

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

The finality of the moment hit Trent Vogelhuber hard last night.

Having forced a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, anything seemed possible for Vogelhuber’s Cleveland Monsters. Then, down a goal deep into the third period, James Malatesta got loose in the bottom right circle, spun and whipped a shot past Bears netminder Hunter Shepard with 5:52 to go in regulation. It was the fourth time in the series that the Monsters had erased a third-period deficit to force overtime – all at Giant Center.

Cleveland outshot Hershey, 17-6, in the final frame and created a number of prime chances that nearly ended the game. Then they killed off a delay-of-game penalty in overtime in what looked like another turn of momentum. But the Bears kept the Monsters pinned in their zone after the power play expired, and 33 seconds later it all came to an end when Garrett Roe flicked a puck past goaltender Jet Greaves, ending the Monsters’ season.

But they never, ever quit. They went toe-to-toe with the AHL’s top team, winning three elimination games and nearly completing the historic comeback in Game 7. And so even the normally quite even-keeled Vogelhuber was left red-eyed and choked up standing outside of the Cleveland dressing room as he tried to find words after the heartbreaking loss.

“They laid it on the line for each other,” Vogelhuber said of his players. “That’s all you can ask of a group. They’re heartbroken. I just feel for them.”

While the defending Calder Cup champion Bears will get a rematch with the Coachella Valley Firebirds in the Calder Cup Finals beginning Friday, the Monsters faced a five-hour bus ride back home to Cleveland and the start of their offseason.

“It was the last game this group played together,” defenseman Billy Sweezey said. “Hopefully guys took lessons, and they can use this as a stepping stone. There are a lot of guys in there that are going to do a lot of good things.

“It’s always going to hurt. I’ll be 50, and it’s still going to hurt.”

Whenever that pain does subside a bit, though, there will be so much to take away from this journey that began in training camp nearly nine months ago.

A pair of first-round picks from the 2022 NHL Draft provided Columbus Blue Jackets fans with an encouraging look at that club’s future. David Jiricek, the sixth overall pick two years ago, took on heavy minutes, played an assertive game and finished with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 14 playoff contests. Denton Mateychuk, who went six picks after Jiricek at No. 12, immediately looked like a composed veteran after Vogelhuber inserted him into the lineup for Game 4 after he had completed a Memorial Cup run with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League.

Greaves, an AHL All-Star this year, carried his strong regular season into the Calder Cup Playoffs, posting a 2.17 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in 13 playoff starts and stopping 122 of 130 shots over the last four games of the conference finals. The 23-year-old has made himself a candidate for a potential role with the Blue Jackets.

Moreover, Vogelhuber, his coaching staff and a strong veteran crew headed by captain Brendan Gaunce put in place a team that earned praise around the league for its never-ending work ethic and commitment. Veteran executive Don Waddell, who joined the Columbus organization May 28 as its new president of hockey operations and general manager, watched last night’s Game 7 with Blue Jackets fans at a bar near Nationwide Arena. He had to come away impressed by what he saw. All season long Vogelhuber has stressed the need to build a winning, upbeat culture in Cleveland that can accompany players when they move on to the Blue Jackets, something that Waddell will inherit as he settles into his new roles.

“Columbus has a bright future with a lot of these guys because they care,” Vogelhuber continued. “They love hockey. They know what it takes to win. It’s about doing it for each other, and that’s I hope what they take out of this year, that they know they can have success if they do that, if they really do it for the guy next to you. That’s how you win. That’s the only reason that we got to this point.”

When Vogelhuber met with his players post-game, he had only a simple message for them.

“Just that I love them.”