Trey FIx Wolansky Cleveland

All season long, it appeared something special might be brewing along the shores of Lake Erie.

Now, the Cleveland Monsters can prove it.

A red-hot start and fantastic finish have led the Blue Jackets’ minor league affiliate to its first division title in franchise history. The next step? The American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs begin for the Monsters tonight as they face Ottawa Senators affiliate Belleville in a best-of-five series.

And just like when the Monsters ran all the way to the Cup in 2016, CBJ fans will have some interest in seeing how the future Blue Jackets on the squad perform when the lights are the brightest.

If you’re just jumping in, here’s what to know about the Monsters going into the team’s first playoff appearance since 2019.

What’s Happening

Cleveland last played the weekend of April 19-21, when it swept division foes Rochester and Toronto in three games to clinch the division title. Belleville beat Toronto in a best-of-three series to open the playoffs for the right to take on Cleveland, and the series will begin in Canada in order to reduce travel costs.

Here’s the five-game schedule for the opening round, with the caveat the games in Cleveland are subject to change based on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA playoff schedule.

Game 1 – Wednesday, May 1 at Belleville, 7 p.m.; Belleville wins 2-1

Game 2 – Friday, May 3 at Belleville, 7 p.m.

Game 3 – Wednesday, May 8 at Cleveland, 7 p.m.

*Game 4 – Friday, May 10 at Cleveland, 7 p.m.

*Game 5 – Sunday, May 12 at Cleveland, 3 p.m.

*If necessary

What Could Be Next

This is the first of four series the Monsters will have to win to capture the Cup this postseason, including two to start in the North Division. Should Cleveland win this series, it would advance to the best-of-five division final against either Rochester (Buffalo affiliate) or Syracuse (Tampa Bay), who are knotted at one in their semifinal series.

Should Cleveland win the first two series against divisional opponents, it will move on to the league semifinals, which are best-of-seven series. There, the Monsters could very well meet defending champion Hershey, which led the AHL with 53 wins and 111 points and also just got a boost in the form of a bevy of players sent down by the recently eliminated Washington Capitals.

If Cleveland makes it all the way back to the Calder Cup final, the team would face the Western Conference champion. Milwaukee (Nashville affiliate) won the Central Division, while Coachella Valley (Seattle) won the Pacific Division.

The Monsters last won the AHL's Calder Cup in 2016, when a squad loaded with future Blue Jackets – Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen, Dean Kukan and Joonas Korpisalo among them – won 15 of 17 postseason games on the way to the title.

Three Stars to Know

It’s taken a team effort for Cleveland to get this far, but three players have stood out throughout the season. All three were AHL All-Stars at midseason, while the first two earned end-of-year second-team all-league honors.

Trey Fix-Wolansky: You can call him Mr. Monster, as the fifth-year member of the squad holds franchise records for career goals (86), assists (113) and points (199) in 224 career games. This year, Fix-Wolansky posted over a point per game with a 26-34-60 line in 58 contests while finishing tied for 12th in the league in points. He would have had more were it not for a late-season stint in Columbus, where he finished with two goals in the season’s penultimate game at Nashville. The energetic wing is the straw that stirs the drink for the Monsters offense.

Jake Christiansen: On the defensive side, Christiansen has cemented himself as one of the top performers in the AHL over his four years with the Monsters. The Vancouver native was yet again one of the most productive blueliners in the league, posting a 13-33-46 line in 62 games to place fifth in goals and tied for fourth in points among AHL defensemen. With 44 NHL games under his belt in the last three seasons, he has the skill and experience to change the game on the back end.

Jet Greaves: Then there’s Greaves, who has had a breakout season in net for both the Monsters and Blue Jackets. He’s certainly impressed all campaign with his preparation and skill, and Greaves – Cleveland’s all-time leader with 61 wins in net – won 30 games this year to tie for second in the AHL. In all, the 23-year-old was 30-12-4 at the AHL level to go with a 2.93 GAA and .910 save percentage, plus with nine appearances and three wins with the Jackets. Likely a future NHLer, Greaves is good enough to steal games if the Monsters need it.

5 Prospects to Watch

The AHL is about developing players, and a number of recent CBJ draft picks have spent much of the season refining their games with the Monsters. Here are five Monsters who could soon be Blue Jackets, in alphabetical order.

Corson Ceulemans: The defenseman will have to battle to get in the lineup – Cleveland is at least nine deep on the blue line – but he has the talent as a 2021 first-round draft pick. The University of Wisconsin product had an up-and-down rookie season with the Monsters, posting a 3-9-12 line in 47 games, but his aggressiveness and willingness to make plays can be a difference maker

Luca Del Bel Belluz: CBJ fans saw Del Bel Belluz in the season finale, as he scored a goal for the Jackets less than four minutes into his NHL career. In Cleveland, he’s become a solid middle-six center as a rookie, and his 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) in 58 games lead the Monsters’ first-year players. His game is about skill and smarts, which could allow him to thrive in postseason hockey.

David Jiricek: Blue Jackets fans are also quite familiar with Jiricek, the 2022 first-round pick who skated in 43 contests with Columbus this season. The defenseman added seven goals and 19 points in 29 games with the Monsters, and Jiricek is a future eater of big minutes at the NHL level. For now, the young Czech blueliner adds some offense and size to the Monsters blue line.

James Malatesta: The energetic, physical wing was called up for a late-season cameo with Columbus, notching two goals and two assists in 11 games. Still just 20 years old, the Montreal native had a 12-10-22 line in 56 games in his first pro season with Cleveland. With some skill, some speed and no fear in his game, the fifth-round draft pick is someone to watch for CBJ fans going forward.

Stanislav Svozil: The defenseman burst onto the scene in recent years standing out at the World Juniors and the Canadian junior ranks, and the 2021 third-round pick from Czechia had a solid first pro season with Cleveland. Svozil’s 5-18-23 line in 57 games placed him third among team blueliners in points, not to mention tied for 12th among league rookies at his position. A smart player with excellent offensive instincts, he had the tying and winning goals in a big late-season win vs. Rochester.

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