The return of championship hockey to Cleveland leads the list of the top American Hockey League stories in 2016.
The Lake Erie Monsters won Cleveland's first hockey championship since 1964 when they swept the Hershey Bears to win the Calder Cup this past June. A franchise-record 19,665 fans, the second-largest playoff crowd in AHL history, jammed Quicken Loans Arena to see forward Oliver Bjorkstrand's overtime goal in a 1-0 win.
Bjorkstrand's goal ended a 15-2 playoff run for the Monsters in the first season of their all-Ohio affiliation with the Columbus Blue Jackets. They swept three of their four playoff series along the way, including a sweep of the Ontario Reign, the Western Conference regular-season champion. They won their final nine playoff games and 24 of their final 28 games in a run that stretched back to the final month of the regular season.
NHL promotions followed for several Monsters.
The win helped to propel coach Jared Bednar to the NHL, where he was hired by the Colorado Avalanche on August 25. He joined Monsters assistant coach Nolan Pratt, who had been hired by Colorado on July 15.
Defenseman Zach Werenski has become a mainstay for the Blue Jackets, but he completed his final preparation for full-time NHL work with Lake Erie. He joined the Monsters for the postseason as an 18-year-old out of the University of Michigan and dominated immediately, finishing with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 17 games and handling some of the toughest defensive assignments that the AHL had to offer.
Video: WSH@CBJ: Werenski beats Grubauer to even game in 3rd
Forwards Josh Anderson and Lukas Sedlak also earned NHL jobs with the Blue Jackets, who are on a 13-game winning streak. Bjorkstrand, the winner of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player in the postseason for his 16 points (10 goals, six assists), has gone on to play five games with Columbus.
Monsters goaltender Anton Forsberg claimed the starting job halfway through the playoff run, finishing 9-0 with a 1.34 goals-against average and .949 save percentage. He remains a candidate for future duty with Columbus.
Before this season the Monsters adopted the "Cleveland" moniker, but they have continued their winning ways with new coach John Madden. Bjorkstrand has 10 goals in 20 games, and Forsberg is 10-6-1 with a 2.36 GAA and .924 save percentage in 19 games.
A slow start followed the many offseason changes, but the Monsters have recovered and are on a seven-game winning streak (7-0-0-1) going into their home game against the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday. A regulation win would pull them to within four points of the Central Division-leading Griffins.
Here is a look at some of the other top stories around the AHL in 2016:
Tucson Roadrunners -- The Arizona Coyotes became the latest Western Conference team to bring their AHL affiliate closer to home, relocating it from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Tucson, two hours south of Gila River Arena. With a re-tooled roster, the Roadrunners have overcome the loss of captain Craig Cunningham to a heart attack and lead the Pacific Division.
Toronto Marlies -- The third-best regular season in AHL history did not lead to postseason glory for the Marlies. They had 54 wins and 114 points, but barely escaped a second-round, seven-game series against the Albany Devils before losing in five games to Hershey in the Eastern Conference final.
Changes -- Along with Tucson, the AHL map underwent more changes. The Florida Panthers affiliate, the Portland Pirates became the Springfield Thunderbirds. In 2017, the Binghamton Senators will relocate to Belleville, Ontario, providing the Ottawa Senators with a nearby affiliate. The Laval Rocket will open the 10,000-seat Place Bell, replacing the St. John's IceCaps as an affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens.
Cleveland defenseman John Ramage was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award for the period ending last Sunday. He had a goal and three assists in two games.
Forward Kenny Agostino of the Chicago Wolves has taken over the league lead with 35 points (nine goals, 26 assists). …Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins rookie forward Jake Guentzel leads the league with 17 goals. Five of his goals have come in the past two games, including a hat trick Tuesday in a 5-3 win against Springfield. Guentzel's 32 points also lead all rookies. … Providence Bruins goaltender Zane McIntyre leads the AHL in GAA (1.35) and save percentage (.953). … The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are first on the power play at 22.7 percent and goals per game (3.72) while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's goals-against per game (2.14) and penalty kill (88.6 percent) each are first. … Hershey forward Paul Carey has a 19-game point streak, the longest in the AHL this season.
ON THE MOVE
San Antonio Rampage goaltender Jeremy Smith was recalled by the Avalanche and goaltender Matt O'Connor of the Binghamton is with Ottawa. … San Antonio also released veteran defenseman Matt Lashoff from his tryout agreement. … Milwaukee Admirals forward Reid Boucher's conditioning assignment has ended, and he has returned to the Nashville Predators. … AHL veteran forward Aaron Palushaj has left Cleveland to go to the Kontinental Hockey League. … The Dallas Stars have added Texas Stars forward Jason Dickinson on recall. … Winnipeg Jets forwards Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev have been assigned to the Manitoba Moose. ... St. Louis Blues goaltending prospect Ville Husso has joined the Chicago Wolves after a stint in the ECHL. Last season in Finland's Liiga he led that league wins (25), GAA (1.91), and save percentage (.927). St. Louis selected him in the fourth round (No. 94) of the 2014 NHL Draft. … This season 57 AHL players have debuted in the NHL.
AROUND THE AHL
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a seven-game winning streak, the longest in the AHL this season. … Although the Hartford Wolf Pack are last in the Atlantic Division, they have won four of their past five games (4-1-0-0). Hartford ended the Syracuse Crunch's league-best seven-game home winning streak, defeating the Crunch 5-4 on Dec. 21. … The Utica Comets have a six-game losing streak (0-3-2-1), and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have a five-game losing streak (0-5-0-0).