This is why the local press box has been enamored with the Lake Erie Monsters so far this Western Conference Finals:
What's impressive abt LE is they're able to play ONT's defensive gm, but they thrive in the speed/skill gm, which isn't ONT's gm— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 23, 2016
In other words, "Get you a man who can do both."
That's no slight on the Ontario Reign—we haven't seen their best, whereas we may have seen Lake Erie's.
It was blue skies for Ontario at warm-ups, as Brett Sutter skated after a seven-game absence. And surprisingly, Paul LaDue, who hasn't played since winning the National Championship with North Dakota on April 9th, made his professional debut.
And like last night, it was clear enough sailing at push-off, as brand-new top line Michael Mersch-Nic Dowd-Michael Amadio enjoyed a solid forecheck. Then about midway into the period, the home team authored the kind of stifling penalty kill that had been the signature of their rousing victory over San Diego. But then...
That was LaDue who hesitated and got burned by Markus Hannikainen, who converted an unmarked Lukas Sedlak's feed. Then on the very next shift...
It was Hannikainen and Sedlak once again, as Kevin Gravel pinched too aggressively. Derek Forbort handled the two-on-one ably, but...
Like Sedlak's Game One marker, Peter Budaj might want this one back. It was a two-on-one, but it was also a save which we're accustomed to seeing from the Team MVP and should've-been-AHL-MVP.
Head Coach Mike Stothers noted, "We lose sight of the fact that because he’s an older guy and he’s a veteran that he’s got a wealth of playoff experience. He doesn’t. So he’s going through it too." But he was quick to interject, "We wouldn’t even be here without Budes."
And like yesterday, the partisan crowd was stunned. Last night, it was three goals in 2:36; tonight, it was two in 12 seconds. After 20, perhaps the Reign were dazed too, as they had countered with just one even strength chance to the Monsters' four.
The power play also offered little solace to Ontario, as they barely set up on the back-to-back opportunities granted them late in the first and early in the second. And their league-leading penalty kill, another bedrock of their success, faltered too, just five minutes into the middle frame:
Besides special teams, Lake Erie kept their foot on the pedal. "They’re a quick team and they get the pucks in the right position when they dump it in and retrieve it well. They have a really good cycle," observed Jeff Schultz. "They know where their guys are. They cycle it once or twice and get it out to the slot for a shot and then crash the net and we have a hard time picking up the rebound or picking up guys."
Defensively, they successfully kept the long-awaited siege to the perimeter. Ontario didn't earn its first ES chance of the period until about a minute left, when Nic Dowd batted a rebound off a Kurtis MacDermid cannon into Anton Forsberg.
And like last night, the Reign began to roll in the final frame. Just five minutes in, their bottom-six line got one back for them, as Kris Newbury shaved a lovely pass to Paul Bissonnette's blade.
However, the Monsters were taking advantage of the home team's desperation, as more than midway into the third, they pushed ahead to a 4-1 ES chances edge. Most of these opportunities resulted from outskating Ontario defensemen who were now understandably in a gambling mood.
And with about seven minutes remaining, the home horse finally came in. Dowd outforechecked Zach Werenski and Steve Eminger, and Mersch threaded the puck through Forsberg and Sedlak and Hannikainen:
It was almost sweet redemption for Gravel. Almost, as the Reign couldn't conjure the equalizer, even with intense pressure after pulling Budaj. It was this close with 20 seconds to go:
"Five hole." That's what Mersch was shooting for, "Probably going to be thinking about that one a little bit, but it was a good save."
Schultz looked ahead to Tuesday in Cleveland. "It’s that urgency that we have in the third that we need to bring to the start of the game.
"Play like our backs are against the wall and try to take it to them."
Stothers took stock of being down 2-0. "This is a new experience. We’ve never experienced this at all. Even with the success we had last year. We never lost a Game 1 in a playoff series. We’ve never been behind in a playoff series.
"It’s part of the process of being in the American Hockey League. Part of the process of learning how to be a good NHL player. Part of the process of winning a championship. Sometimes, you’re going to face some adversity."
Update: Fantastic work by Jason Hernandez, who tracked ES Corsi by period. He had Ontario up 57-30 for the game, 47-17 over the last two periods. So how did they get outchanced 10-4?? Obviously, Lake Erie was opportunistic and successfully protected "home plate." And the Reign missed 26 shots at evens...26!