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5 things to know about the Cleveland Monsters' playoff run

Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate begins postseason Friday

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

John Tortorella is laser-focused on what the Blue Jackets need to do to win the Stanley Cup. 

But he's also excited the Columbus organization can win the Calder Cup as well. 

The Cleveland Monsters begin the postseason tonight as their best-of-five playoff series vs. Syracuse starts in upstate New York. The I-90 battle matches the Crunch, the former affiliate of the Jackets and the champion of the North Division this year, against a Monsters team going back to the postseason for the first time since the 2015-16 team won it all. 

That squad featured such notable names as Zach Werenski, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Dean Kukan, Markus Hannikainen, Joonas Korpisalo and Lukas Sedlak, who used that Calder Cup run as a springboard to NHL success and are all currently on the Blue Jackets' roster. 

That's one reason why someone like Tortorella is paying attention, even if he's got bigger fish to fry in Columbus. 

"Any league you play in the playoffs, and now you're talking about the kids with a National Hockey League team, it's good," Tortorella said. "They've worked hard to get in there. They've done a tremendous job to get in, and the more playoff games the kids can play in that situation, that's a quicker process as far as getting to the National Hockey League." 

Here are five things to know about the Monsters heading into the postseason. Games can be followed online at https://www.clevelandmonsters.com/2019-playoff-central 

1. The Monsters finished hot 

Cleveland needed to win on the final day to make the playoffs and did so, downing Toronto on Sunday by a 5-1 score to clinch the final North Division spot. 

That was the final victory in a 13-6-3 run down the stretch that allowed the Monsters, who in mid-February had fallen into seventh place in the North, eight points behind the fourth and final playoff spot. 

"The last couple games (of the regular season), we had a little bit of struggles, but before that we were really on a hot streak and when guys were injured, other guys stepped up and took the opportunity," defenseman Gabriel Carlsson told the team website. "The last win against Toronto was really good for us and I feel like we can just continue to build on that and it's going to be really excited to get the playoffs going." 

2. Cleveland-Columbus ties 

Cleveland's roster is primarily made up of Blue Jackets prospects, and Columbus fans will likely be familiar with a number of names. 

The Monsters head into the postseason with five players on the roster who suited up with the Blue Jackets at some point this season in New Albany native Kole Sherwood, Sonny Milano, Mark Letestu, Kevin Stenlund and Zac Dalpe. 

Then there's Liam Foudy, who is yet to play for the Blue Jackets in a regular season game but brings impressive credentials with him to Cleveland upon his arrival this week. Foudy was the organization's first-round pick in the 2018 draft and just finished a season with the OHL's London Knights in which he tallied 36-32-68 with a plus-39 rating in 61 appearances.

While Dalpe and Letestu are veterans whom the Blue Jackets have turned to in a pinch, Milano, Sherwood and Stenlund are prospects whose best days with Columbus could still be ahead. Other prospects of note include forwards Sam Vigneault, Calvin Thurkauf and Paul Bittner; defensemen Carlsson and Ryan Collins; and goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks. 

3. Dalpe's on fire 

Dalpe got to skate with the Jackets in warmups on Tuesday before Game 4, and maybe it's not a coincidence the Jackets went out and scored a franchise-record seven goals in the closeout win over the Lightning. 

OK, three of them were empty-netters, but maybe some of Dalpe's mojo rubbed off on his Columbus teammates after he spent a couple of days in the capital city. The 29-year-old has had a career year with Cleveland, posting a franchise-record 33 goals and a team-best 55 points. Despite playing in just 55 of 76 games this year, Dalpe finished one away from the AHL lead in goals. 

4. Looking up 

Monsters players said they've been looking up at the big club and enjoying the success of the Blue Jackets this postseason. 

"I love seeing (the Blue Jackets) do well," said forward Brett Gallant, one of four Monsters who returns from the 2016 title team along with Milano, starting goalie Brad Thiessen and Alex Broadhurst. "You go up there in training camp and it's such a great group of guys and then you've got the guys up there that you played with down here and they're doing well. It's exciting for the organization and it's been fun to watch." 

5. Cuse is loose 

Ironically, the Syracuse team the Monsters will play is the top farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team the Blue Jackets just knocked from the playoffs. 

Remember how we said Dalpe was one goal away from the AHL lead? The two players he finished behind, Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet, both play for the Crunch and finished with 34 goals this season, while Verhaeghe also led the AHL with 82 points. Another notable name is Cory Conacher, a veteran of six NHL seasons who has a 22-42-64 line this year. 

After the series starts Friday and Saturday in Syracuse, Cleveland will host Game 3 on Tuesday and Game 4, if necessary, on Thursday.  

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