Cleveland Monsters Control Their Own Destiny for AHL Playoffs

If there was anything that the Columbus Blue Jackets needed to happen this season, it was for their AHL affiliate the Cleveland Monsters to make the playoffs. With just nine games left in the regular season, the Monsters have a chance but things are far from settled.

Entering play on Saturday, the Monsters are fifth in their division by points percentage but sixth in overall points, trailing the Laval Rocket by one. Because the Monsters have three games in hand over the Rocket, they control their own destiny. But making these playoffs are anything but a certainty thanks to their remaining schedule.

How’d We Get Here?

Things were looking dicey for the Monsters for long stretches of the season. The injury situation with the Blue Jackets had a direct effect on who the Monsters could play on any given night. Even now, important contributors are in Columbus as emergency recalls.

As of Saturday, Billy Sweezey, Jake Christiansen, Jon Gillies, and Trey Fix-Wolansky are on the Blue Jackets’ roster. That comprises the Monsters’ best forward, two of their best defensemen and an AHL experienced goalie. The Blue Jackets in the coming week should top over 500 man-games lost to injury. That’s absurd.

Trey Fix-Wolansky Cleveland Monsters
Trey Fix-Wolansky is currently up with the Blue Jackets given the injuries. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

However give the Monsters and their coaching staff credit for not only battling through the injuries and uncertainty, but also having the team in position to make the playoffs. Trent Vogelhuber has done a nice job managing all of the disruptions while making sure the team is developing the right way.

Of late, the Monsters have gotten some help in the form of healthy bodies and assignments from the Blue Jackets. Most notably, Cole Sillinger was assigned to them. Carson Meyer is also back healthy and playing. Although injured at the moment, Yegor Chinakhov and Daniil Tarasov are important contributors. We’ll see how long they’re out and how severe their injuries are.

The Monsters as a result have been the best team in their division in the last 10 games going 6-3-1 in that stretch. But now their schedule gets quite tough to finish the season out. This starts with a pair of games against one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams in the Hershey Bears.

The Final 9

The Monsters host the Bears for a pair at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The teams split a pair of games in December at Giant Center in Hershey with the Bears winning 3-2 and the Monsters winning 6-5 in a shootout.

Then five of the Monsters’ last seven games are away from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Considering who the opposition will be, these games will determine who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t.

The Monsters play at Belleville, at Laval and at Belleville again in a three games in four nights situation. The Senators trail the Monsters by just two entering Saturday’s play and have played two more games than the Monsters. To them, that will be their playoffs on home ice. Meanwhile the Rocket have been the Monsters’ direct competition for that final playoff spot from the North Division.

You Might Also Like

Three wins would all but clinch a playoff spot. Three losses could jeopardize the Monsters’ postseason hopes. Anything in-between means the final four games would decide playoff spots.

The last four games for the Monsters are home to Grand Rapids, at Utica, at Rochester and then home to Rochester to end the season. It’s all hands on deck for the Monsters as they are in the thick of the playoff chase. As long as they keep winning, they’re in line to make the big dance where anything can happen.

3 Things to Watch For

Here are the three things I’ll be watching closely for in these last nine games.

  • Goaltending. This is an ever-changing landscape by the day. Elvis Merzlikins is day-to-day with the Blue Jackets. Gillies will remain there until Merzlikins is ready. With Tarasov recovering from injury, expect Jet Greaves and Pavel Cajan to split duties in net. No matter who gets the call, they will be a major factor in if the Monsters make the postseason.
Jet Greaves Columbus Blue Jackets
Jet Greaves will be an important factor for the Monsters down the stretch. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
  • Rest of roster. Marcus Bjork was returned to the Monsters while Josh Dunne was called up. Like they have all season, the Monsters will need to make the best of what they have available to them. When will players like Dunne or Fix-Wolansky return? Who steps up while they’re in Columbus? It’s the land of opportunity for whoever wants to step up.
  • Development of young players. This is always important. But it takes on even greater importance now given how big the games are. Cole Sillinger will get his first taste of these kind of games. David Jiricek continues to shine and will get his first taste of it too. These are the moments that go widely unnoticed but will prove crucial in future success thanks to the experience of playing in critical games. Who steps up and who handles the pressure?

The Monsters have nine games left to try to make the big dance. They control their own destiny. Not much more needs to be said. Win and they’re in. It’s as simple as that.

Sign up for our regular 'Blue Jackets Newsletter' for all the latest.