The Never Say Die Attitude Of The Lake Erie Monsters

Just when you thought the game was out of reach for the Lake Erie Monsters as the third period clock ticked down trailing 3-2, Lake Erie was just getting started.

Ryan Craig and Daniel Zaar score 2:36 apart in the last frame to help propel the Monsters to an improbable 4-3 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 2 of the Central Division Finals in the Calder Cup Playoffs. They now lead the best-of-seven series 2-0. Game 3 is Sunday afternoon in Grand Rapids.

After a flurry of penalties dominated the first period, Lake Erie jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to their potent power play. Sonny Milano opened the scoring. Then Steve Eminger doubled the lead thanks to a great pass by T.J. Tynan. All seemed well in Monsters land at that moment. Then, in a flash, the game changed.

With under four seconds left in the first period, Eric Tangradi beat Joonas Korpisalo to cut the lead to 2-1 going into the intermission. Tangradi scored 5-on-3 to beat the clock. This allowed the Griffins to start the second on a long power play.

Although the Griffins didn’t score on that power play, they did soon afterwards, as Xavier Ouellet tied the score just 2:05 into the period. Whatever momentum Lake Erie had to start the game, was gone quicker than you could blink. It was a brand new game. Grand Rapids then started squeezing the life out of the Monsters. Eventually, the Griffins took the lead.

Andy Miele gave Grand Rapids their first lead of the game at 14:58, beating Korpisalo with a well-placed high shot. The period ended 3-2 Griffins, while the Monsters could only muster four shots on goal. The third period didn’t start that much better.

In all, the Monsters went over 33 minutes with just six shots on goal. Grand Rapids had all the momentum and were well on their way to a decisive win that would even the series.

Enter the never say die attitude of the Lake Erie Monsters.

After the Griffins took two third-period penalties, Lake Erie started to get some momentum, although they didn’t score. Here came their final charge. Within 20 seconds of the second penalty ending, the Monsters tied the score, thanks to their leader and captain.

Ryan Craig went unnoticed in front of Griffins goalie Tom McCollum, and calmly deposited a pass from Trent Vogelhuber into a screaming cage. Quicken Loans Arena was now alive and well. The best was still yet to come.

Daniel Zaar then did his part to make sure the game would end in regulation. The puck found his stick and he placed a perfect shot on McCollum which sent the fans into a frenzy. As fast as momentum left the Monsters early in the game, they got it back just in time for a perfect comeback. The Monsters held on at the end to take Game 2 away from the Griffins.

Winning is nice. But it’s how they won that’s the story of this game.

Young Players Overcoming Adversity

The Monsters lead their series 2-0, but it hasn’t been easy by any stretch. In Game 1, the Monsters had to stop a penalty shot at the end of regulation to force overtime. Then they had to hold their breath while the referees reviewed a potential game-winning Grand Rapids goal.

They disallowed the goal because it was gloved into the net. What a break for Lake Erie.

Soon after receiving new life, Oliver Bjorkstrand ended the game by scoring a power-play goal. The team had to rise up and meet those earlier challenges to win Game 1.

There was more of the same in Game 2. Once again, the Monsters found a way to win, despite the challenges.

The Monsters lost their early 2-0 lead. They also lost defenseman Jaime Sifers for most of the second period after blocking a shot. The deck seemed stacked against Lake Erie.

Don’t tell that to this team.

“I think our depth, our stick with-it-ness, we know that until the 60 minutes or more are up, that’s where your result happens”, captain Ryan Craig said. “For us, it’s just a huge deal to stay with the game. It just took us until the last four minutes of the game to get it done.”

“It’s a mindset that our team has. We have that next man up mentality”, coach Bednar said of overcoming adversity. “We feel like everyone involved in our game, all 20 guys who dress up can step in and play.”

This mindset rubs off on a young team in a positive way. They are enjoying success at a young age. The leadership led by Craig and Vogelhuber show  these youngsters what it takes to overcome all kinds of adversities, whether it’s a 12pm start for a game, or hopping on a bus and playing just 27 hours later. The leadership in Lake Erie is paying huge dividends for the team. They can build on this success when their time in the NHL comes.

I asked Zaar about the impact of the leaders in the locker room.

“They are huge for us, both on the ice and off”, Zaar said. “They talk in the locker room to us and show us a lot of things on how to be (a good player).”

Kerby Rychel
Players like Kerby Rychel are learning how to be a better pro in Lake Erie. (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

When you see the Werenski’s, Milano’s, and Rychel’s of the world enjoying success at the next level, it’s because of the leadership instilled in Lake Erie. This is all part of the development that GM Jarmo Kekalainen talks about. The young players need to experience adversity. They need to grow and develop from it. They are doing that and then some with this playoff run. They are 5-0 in the playoffs thus far. As Bednar put it, “the best is yet to come.”

It may not always look pretty, but what Lake Erie has done in these playoffs has been effective. There’s always adversity. But how you handle it determines the course you will ride. For these Monsters, they are on the right course for future success. We will see some of these Monsters in Columbus soon, armed with the right focus and mentality.

One day, when the Blue Jackets break through, and we reflect on why they were successful, think of Lake Erie. Think of players like Craig, Vogelhuber, and Eminger. Their example has rubbed off on the young players in a very positive way. Those players don’t get the credit they deserve, but they’re not out looking for praise. They’re there to set the right example. They’ve handled everything like a pro. Now they’re showing the next ones how to do it too. That’s worth celebrating if you are a Blue Jackets fan.

Time to take notice of what’s going on in Cleveland. These Monsters are just getting started.