Duplicating success from season to season in the American Hockey League is never an easy task, and the defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters find themselves in a midseason fight.
Last spring the Monsters went 15-2 in the Calder Cup Playoffs en route to winning the first-ever Calder Cup for a Columbus Blue Jackets affiliate. They won their final nine playoff games, swept three of four playoff series and won 24 of their final 28 games dating to the final month of the regular season.
This season has been something more of a grind while they contend with player turnover. A good AHL affiliate produces players for its NHL team and Cleveland did exactly that last season for the Blue Jackets.
After storming through the playoffs last season, a return engagement this spring will take some work for coach John Madden and his team. Madden replaced Jared Bednar, who was hired by the Colorado Avalanche on Aug. 25, 2016.
Cleveland is fifth in the Central Division and chasing the fourth-place Iowa Wild, who they trail by six points. The top four teams in each division qualify for the AHL postseason. The Monsters visit the Wild on Wednesday. Iowa has an eight-game point streak (6-0-2-0) that includes back-to-back wins at Cleveland last weekend, but Cleveland has four games in hand.
"We're going to be in a dogfight in our division," Cleveland captain Ryan Craig said.
All things considered, Cleveland managed to navigate several first-half challenges.
The Monsters have had to deal with several player losses from last season. Defenseman Zach Werenski along with forwards Josh Anderson and Lukas Sedlak graduated to the Blue Jackets. Goaltenders Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo have juggled assignments between Columbus and Cleveland, as has forward Markus Hannikainen.
Cleveland has had to dig out from a 3-7-0-0 start and has done so inside the difficult Central Division. The Central-leading Grand Rapids Griffins also lead Western Conference and the Chicago Wolves have overcome a slow beginning to become a Western Conference force while they jockey with the third-place Milwaukee Admirals.
Goals have been difficult to come by. The Monsters' are seventh in the AHL with 2.70 goals allowed per game but their 2.50 goals per game is 26th. Forward Oliver Bjorkstrand leads Cleveland with 14 goals even though time spent with Columbus has limited him to 35 AHL games.
But a run of nine wins in 11 games in December have the Monsters in contention. They also got a key win Tuesday in defeating Milwaukee 4-1 to start a two-game trip.
"We've put ourselves in a good spot," Craig said. "But we've got to continue to get better. That's our goal in the second half. We were kind of in the same situation last [season] where we continued to get better throughout the [season] and then hit our stride in the second half.
"That's our goal. John Madden has done a great job with our group coming in and not really knowing anybody on short notice, and I think it's a testament to how he has tried to coach our team."
Craig believes that tapping into the experiences of last season will help.
"I think the fundamentals of our team are still the same," Craig said. "We're still a team that competes, that works. We play a 200-foot game, and we have good goaltending. For us it's a matter of sticking to the identity that we've created and playing that way."
Milwaukee forward Frederick Gaudreau won the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award for the period ending last Sunday. He scored four goals with an assist in two games.
Chicago forward Kenny Agostino leads the AHL scoring with 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists). He is on recall with the St. Louis Blues. … Lehigh Valley Phantoms forward Greg Carey leads the league with 22 goals. … Goaltender Garret Sparks of the Toronto Marlies leads the AHL with a 2.08 goals-against average and Troy Grosenick of the San Jose Barracuda has a league-leading .929 save percentage. … Lehigh Valley's 3.62 goals per game lead the league. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have a league-best 2.36 goals allowed per game. … Grand Rapids has a 27.3 percent power play to lead the AHL. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is first on the penalty kill at 86.9 percent. … The Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Hershey Bears are locked in a battle for fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Bridgeport is 9-1-0-0 in its past 10 games and Hershey has a six-game point streak (5-0-0-1). … A five-game winning streak has moved San Jose into first place in the Pacific Division. … The San Diego Gulls are 11-0-0-1 in their past 12 games and have pulled into third place in the Pacific. Goaltender Jhonas Enroth is 10-1-0-0 with a 1.64 GAA and .940 save percentage since arriving in a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan 10.
ON THE MOVE
The Rochester Americans added forward help when Derek Grant was acquired on waivers from the Nashville Predators. Grant scored 27 goals in 36 games last season with the Stockton Heat. He had been lost to Nashville on waivers on Jan. 11. …The St. John's IceCaps lost forwards Daniel Carr and Michael McCarron on recall to the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday. Forward Jacob De La Rose was sent to St. John's. … Winnipeg Jets forward Brandon Tanev is on loan to the Manitoba Moose. … Providence forward Petr Cehlarik is with the Boston Bruins. … Hershey forward Zach Sanford was recalled by the Washington Capitals on Wednesday. … The Utica Comets received forward Brendan Gaunce from the Vancouver Canucks. … Defenseman Paul LaDue (Ontario Reign), along with forwards Marcus Sorensen (San Jose) and Alex Tuch (Iowa), each made his NHL debut last week. Through Tuesday, 75 AHL players have played their first NHL game this season.