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Lake Erie can end long wait for Cleveland

Blue Jackets affiliate aims to clinch city's first hockey title since 1964 in Game 4 of Calder Cup Final

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Cleveland hockey fans have waited 52 years for a championship, so they can probably handle waiting a few more days for Game 4 of the Calder Cup Final.

The Lake Erie Monsters have a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series against the Hershey Bears after a 3-2 overtime win Monday in Cleveland. The Monsters, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, will host Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday with a chance to end the series. The city's most recent hockey championship came in 1964 when the Cleveland Barons won the Calder Cup, sweeping the Quebec Aces.

With a mix of high-end prospects and intriguing depth players, the Monsters can become the first Blue Jackets affiliate to win the Calder Cup. Columbus and Lake Erie began their affiliation this season, and several Lake Erie players earned ice time with the Blue Jackets.

The Monsters enter Game 4 having won eight consecutive games and 23 of their past 27; they are 14-2 in the postseason. Lake Erie swept its first-round series against Rockford and the Western Conference Final against defending Calder Cup champion Ontario. It had a 3-0 series lead against Grand Rapids in the second round before needing six games to close out the series.

Hershey, seeking its fourth Calder Cup championship in 11 seasons, has not been swept in the Finals since 1961. There have been 18 sweeps in Calder Cup Final history.

The Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, eliminated regular-season champion Toronto in the Eastern Conference Final but have struggled against the Monsters' speed and aggressive forecheck.

Rookie forward Oliver Bjorkstrand had two goals Monday for Lake Erie, including the game-winner 1:20 into overtime. Bjorkstrand, who had 17 goals in 51 regular-season games, has heated up as part of a dynamic line with Lukas Sedlak, the AHL's leading playoff goal scorer, and the reliable Markus Hannikainen. Bjorkstrand has five goals in his past five games, four of them against Hershey.

Hershey had scored the opening goal in Game 3 only to see Bjorkstrand score 4:37 later. He followed that in overtime, outmuscling Hershey defenseman Ryan Stanton to the rebound of a Zach Werenski shot and sweeping it past goaltender Justin Peters. Bjorkstrand, a third-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, played 12 games with Columbus this season and had four goals and four assists.

Lake Erie's power play continues to solve the Hershey penalty kill. The Monsters have gone 3-for-6 on the power play in their past two games.

Monsters goaltender Anton Forsberg took over the No. 1 goaltending job in the second round and has gone 8-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage.

The Monsters have had timely and balanced scoring from four strong forward lines, reliable goaltending and an effective power play. And it all has them one win away from a championship.

ATTENDANCE RECORD SET

Lake Erie attracted 12,935 for Game 3, and another strong turnout is expected for Game 4. On Monday the AHL set a single-season attendance record of 7,110,298.

The Monsters lead the AHL in average attendance in the playoffs at 9,814. Hershey (7,720) is second.

Moves into several strong markets helped to drive attendance for the league. Five NHL teams moved their affiliates to California before this season. Two of them, San Diego (Anaheim Ducks) and Ontario (Los Angeles Kings), finished in the top four in regular-season attendance. San Diego drew an average of 8,675 per game; Ontario was at 8,570.

The AHL will be in a new market next season with the Arizona Coyotes bringing their affiliate to Tucson, Ariz. The affiliate will be located two hours away from the Coyotes, who play in Glendale, and provide them the same easy player movement that several other Pacific Division teams already have.

AROUND THE AHL

The Florida Panthers filled their AHL coaching vacancy Tuesday, hiring longtime AHL assistant coach Geordie Kinnear for the position with their new Springfield (Mass.) affiliate. Kinnear replaces Scott Allen, who took an assistant coach position with Florida. Kinnear spent the past 10 seasons as an AHL assistant coach for the Carolina Hurricanes, most recently with Charlotte. … John Anderson, the longtime coach of Chicago, the St. Louis Blues affiliate, left the position this past week. He coached Chicago for 14 seasons over two stints. He has 424 AHL coaching wins. … Brad Tapper, an assistant to Anderson this season, was named an assistant with Rochester, the affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. Tapper will join fellow hire Chuck Weber on new coach Dan Lambert's staff. … Binghamton (Ottawa Senators), Providence (Boston Bruins), San Antonio (Colorado Avalanche) and Tucson have coaching openings. There will be at least 10 new coaches going into next season.

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