After two rounds of familiar opponents, the Ontario Reign and the Lake Erie Monsters, like strangers in the night, got down and dirty at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Or as America's favorite karaoke band once sang:
Strangers! Waiting...for the Conference Finals! Game One, they're wonderin', "Was the tape right??"
From the drop of the puck, Ontario had a step on Lake Erie, as Michael Mersch outfought Jaime Sifers to tip a Derek Forbort point shot, then linemate Nic Dowd nearly converted from the slot. But surprise starter Anton Forsberg cooled down an amped-up home team.
Settled down, the speedy Monsters found their legs. More than midway into the period, Zach Werenski weaved through the Reign PK, dropping it off to Oliver Bjorkstrand at the right point. The young Dane waited patiently until a seam opened up to Alex Broadhurst creeping down:
Head Coach Mike Stothers had pointed out the variety and creativity of Lake Erie's breakouts before the series, and this was but one example tonight.
However, Ontario pounded the visitors with their own specialty, the forecheck, for most of the opening frame, as they muscled themselves a 16-11 shots and 6-4 even strength scoring chances edge. And their rush wasn't half-bad either, as resident speedster Adrian Kempe backed off Justin Falk, shrugged off Sonny Milano at the half wall, and delivered a gorgeous feed that Nic Dowd one timed...into a sliding Ryan Craig. The Monsters aren't wanting for sandpaper either, that's for sure.
For the home team and especially regular season leading scorer Sean Backman, the second period kicked off right:
That was the winger's first goal in 19 games. When asked how good he felt after that, Backman quipped, "That’s an understatement."
And if Forsberg wanted that one back, the Reign will demand a refund for the rest of the period.
About seven minutes in, Ryan Horvat got caught deep, and Dean Kukan advanced it ahead. The rest was tic-tac-toe precision which the defending champs haven't contended with this postseason:
Kevin Gravel was certainly referring to this Bjorkstrand to Markus Hannikainen to Lukas Sedlak masterpiece when he spoke later about Lake Erie's skating. "That’s one of the things, when forwards have a little bit of speed, sometimes you have the tendency to back off and play a bigger gap. Whether or not that’s the right thing to do, probably not, but that’s what speed does."
A minute later, big Josh Anderson was able to win power play Whack-a-Mole. What was Forbort doing?
Another minute passed, and Mersch lost Ryan Craig, so Dowd had to contend with a two-on-one down low:
The home crowd was stunned, and in truth, so were we in the press box. These were all uncharacteristic Ontario errors which led to three goals against in 2:36. In fact, the last time they gave up that many goals in a period was three months ago in San Diego.
"The start of the second period, I think each and every line that went out...turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and we ended up going back in our end," Stothers fumed. "I guess that’s what makes a team look fast."
But he wasn't taking credit away from the opposition. "That’s how they generate some speed from underneath. They come up the ice, they drop it to the guys coming underneath with speed. I thought they did a real good job of head-manning the puck."
And the Monsters kept racing ahead, as late into the middle frame, they were up 13-5 shots for the period.
However, if the third period was any indication, we're in for some series: The Reign replied to the visitors' transition game by regularly getting the puck in deep and battering them with a devastating forecheck, spurred by Stothers's rejiggered lines.
Just a minute in, Dowd, now centering Mersch and Michael Amadio, forced T.J. Tynan into a soft behind-the-net rim which Gravel ate up. That led to Dowd at the left dot for a seeing-eye wrister; Sifers should've stepped out on the star pivot, and Falk couldn't because he was preoccupied by Mersch.
Shortly thereafter, Horvat intercepted a blind Trent Vogelhuber also behind-the-net breakout, but Forsberg swallowed up the pesky winger's backhand.
Then with about 12 minutes left in the game, Joel Lowry-Kempe-Backman, which was probably the most dangerous of the newly formed trios, combined for their own tic-tac-toe. Or shall I say hit-tac-toe?
This game had to be going to overtime, right? This fascinating clash of styles deserved as much. Well, in theory. 19 seconds later, Lake Erie capitalized on another unusual Ontario mistake, which to their credit, was inspired by a Michael Chaput forecheck.
Should Gravel have tied up Broadhurst's stick? Should Forbort have been lower?
Gravel faced the music. "It’s second nature, you see a puck, you’re going to try to front it. You have no control over where it goes after you, and unfortunately for us, it went right on that guy’s tape back door and he buried it."
The Reign being the Reign, they kept winning board battles and flinging shots. And with about 40 seconds to go and Budaj pulled, Amadio threaded the needle between Sedlak's legs:
Kempe missed the game tying goal by thaaaat much https://t.co/SFvvteo5Lo— All The Kings Men (@KingsMenPodcast) May 22, 2016
Of Amadio, Stothers simply said, "He makes plays." But that post was the clang of doom for a strange Ontario performance.
Dowd offered, "I think it happens across the board to a lot of teams, but I thought our urgency was not there."
"We’ve got to be relentless on them," emphasized Backman. "We saw signs of it in the first and third there, and we’re a tough team to play...when we’re playing heavy like that."
A tiny spark might be what it takes to tip the balance. And by balance, I mean balance. Lake Erie owned a 34-30 shots edge, but ES chances and Corsi (HT Jason Hernandez) were almost all knotted up (15-15, ONT 49-48).
The now not-so strangers hook up again tonight. Will the Monsters' transition game keep forcing the Reign into uncharted waters? Or will Ontario douse Lake Erie's upset flame for a night?