Young, Exciting Monsters Adjusting to New Conference

The Cleveland Monsters raced out to an impressive 3-0 start after wins against Rockford and Toronto. Clearly the new season was a welcome sight for a team that had many off nights in 2017-18. They looked to keep up that momentum against a new foe, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

This set of games was interesting on many fronts. It marked the first time an Eastern Conference opponent was at Quicken Loans Arena since the 2016 Calder Cup Final when Hershey was the opponent. With the Monsters’ move to the Eastern Conference for this season, it gives both the team and fans different teams to look at. How would the Monsters fare against a stout opponent they’re not used to seeing?

After being outscored 7-1 in the two games, including 3-0 on Thursday, the Monsters showed they are still learning and adjusting to life in a new conference. But that’s not a bad thing. There’s a lot to like about this team.

Recapping Saturday’s Game

After taking 11 penalties Thursday night, the Monsters knew one of the things they had to do was stay out of the box. They did so early and got an early lead thanks to Kevin Stenlund. He returned from a lower-body injury and opened the scoring on a snipe from the top of the right circle. He used the defenseman as a screen and went bar and in to give the Monsters a 1-0 lead. Things were looking much better after 20 minutes.

Then came the second period.

The Penguins came out with a purpose. They swarmed the Monsters and didn’t allow much time or space. They spent most of the second period around Monsters’ goaltender J-F Berube. They connected three times. Berube left two juicy rebounds that the Penguins got to first. Then a long shot was deflected that Berube had no chance on. In a flash, the game flipped around.

The Monsters finally turned it on at the end of the second but Penguins’ goaltender Anthony Peters didn’t allow another goal. He’s off to a 3-0 start with a goals against average of under one. The final score was 4-1.

Postgame, Monsters’ coach John Madden was asked about if there was a different style of play being in the Eastern Conference.

“I will say this,” Madden said. “They’re much more aggressive. All the teams are. They play a more north/south game where the division we were in last year played more east/west. It’s just different, different types of players.”

Coach nailed it. The Penguins played an aggressive, in-your-face, north/south style of game that the Monsters seemed to have trouble adjusting to. After scoring 14 goals in their first three games, they could only get one against the Penguins. While there is a lot to learn and adjust to, these Monsters have a buzz about them that makes them worth watching all season.

Former Islanders goalie J-F Berube is helping stabilize the net in Cleveland. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Much To Look Forward To

The big difference this season for the Monsters is having goaltender J-F Berube there. He’s the veteran presence that can help Matiss Kivlenieks along and stabilize the crease. Despite losing both games against the Penguins, he was pretty good. He left a couple of rebounds he’d like back Saturday, but these games easily could have been 6-0 or worse.

Not only was the goaltending addressed, the overall talent was addressed. Adding Tommy Cross to the defensive core is a strong move. Michael Prapavessis doesn’t look out of place in the early going.

But it’s the forwards that are generating the most buzz. This starts with Vitaly Abramov. Although he was quiet Saturday, you can see the flashes of brilliance he’ll eventually bring. He still has a lot to learn about the AHL game but that’s to be expected. The Penguins played him aggressively and were able to contain him. Plus he needs to get stronger. Those are very correctable moving forward.

In addition to Abramov and Stenlund, Zac Dalpe, Alex Broadhurst and Eric Robinson look like they’ll be major contributors this season.

The Monsters are still a very young team but that means they’ll only get better. As coach Madden said Saturday night, they’ll have four good practices before they go on a long road trip.

The thing we wanted to see was tangible improvement with these Monsters. Five games in, that improvement is visible. This bodes well for a much improved season from a year ago. They’re learning and adjusting, but there’s some buzz around them that was absent last season. That’s what makes this team worth watching in 2018-19.