CLEVELAND – Another Monday, another installment of the Monday Monster Mash at Field Pass Hockey. I’ll admit that I’ve started, deleted, and restarted this column about five times now. This past week in Cleveland Monsters hockey was one of the most frustrating and confusing since I joined the beat to start the 2019-20 season. Luckily, we learned one key lesson about this coaching staff and squad: when their back is against the hardest wall of the season, they respond.
The Week That Was
In last week’s Monday Monster Mash, I closed with a bit of a challenge and question for the Monsters: “Ultimately, this is a huge gut-check time for the Monsters. Will they be able to rise to the occasion? We’ll take a look next Monday.”
My hope was that since some key players had rejoined or were extremely close to returning to active status, we would see the return of the red-hot Cleveland Monsters from earlier this season.
But back to the question. The answer depends on when in the week we try to answer it. Up until Sunday afternoon, my response would’ve been an emphatic “No.”
First came 3-1 regulation and 2-1 overtime losses at home against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Then, and I’m sorry for bringing this up, the 9-0 embarrassment against the Charlotte Checkers on the road. At that point, I had written up a scathing diatribe of the organization and the roster management of bubble players and those who essentially are still NHL prospects. Though, I held off on publishing it in my game recap and decided to give it 24 hours.
I’m incredibly glad I did because the Monsters put up the performance of the season against the Charlotte Checkers in their Sunday matinee, claiming a 5-2 victory. And if you haven’t listened to Tony Brown‘s call of the 3-2 goal, I urge you to find a clip. It was one of the most cathartic calls I’ve ever heard.
What spurred that massive turnaround? Besides players having some tough conversations with one another, head coach Trent Vogelhuber issued a challenge of his own before Sunday’s rematch:
“We’re gonna see today, it’s a turning point right? Second half of the season, and you know I’ll have hope if we can respond in a way that is necessary and if some guys don’t? Then it tells a lot about them as an individual and about our group. To be honest, if we don’t respond the right way, there won’t be a lot of hope.”
Nothing gets players to listen quite like saying you don’t have hope in the group if they don’t find a response. Notice he didn’t say they had to win. Just that they needed a necessary response. The rest was left up to interpretation.
And respond they did!
It cannot be understated how huge that goal was for Cleveland. You could almost feel the collective exhale from that squad. https://t.co/ult6TPRzoa
— Deana Weinheimer (@FPHMonsters) January 22, 2023
In total, Cleveland emerged with three out of a possible eight points on the week. They were outscored 16-7.
Scoring over the last seven days were: Owen Sillinger (one goal, one assist), Roman Ahcan (2 assists), Trey Fix-Wolansky (two goals, two assists), Tyler Angle (two goals, one assist), Josh Dunne (one goal), and Cole Fonstad (one goal).
Cleveland advanced to sixth in the North Division with 35 points and a 15-18-3-2 record. They are three points out of a playoff position.
Lessons and Questions
Very rarely does a team hit a total “rock bottom” moment like Cleveland did on Saturday evening against Charlotte. Hitting a franchise-tying worst mark for most goals against in a game (nine) is enough to strain the locker room and send shockwaves through an organization.
Postgame Saturday, I wondered if that would be the low to beat all lows that would hopefully inspire the team to band together and make meaningful improvements. What I didn’t expect was such an immediate turnaround.
But how long will this last? Are the returns of goaltender Daniil Tarasov and first-line center Justin Richards enough to bring consistency and wins back to Cleveland? Was the 9-0 loss simply a symptom of too many bodies coming back in too short a time that the little chemistry and familiarity in place were obliterated?
Seeing the night and day difference between Saturday and Sunday in North Carolina, I now answer the “will they rise to the occasion” question with a very hesitant “yes.”
Either way, this team must find ways to consistently trend in the right direction. We saw earlier this season what this crew, at full strength, can do. After all, they were challenging for the top spot in the division not that long ago.
But how do they get there? The answer(s) may be sitting in a locker stall 141 miles south on I-71 in Columbus. Perhaps this past week, assuming they can fill the open roster spot, will be enough to inspire the NHL-affiliate Columbus Blue Jackets to send down one of Emil Bemstrom or Kirill Marchenko to help their minor league club.
Unlike the Blue Jackets, Cleveland is still in a position to go on a run and make the playoffs. But there are some questions if the current lineup on the ice right now will be enough to get them there. This team likely needs some help, and 100% requires some time to get reacquainted with one another.
I doubt there are fewer worse fates for the Columbus/Cleveland affiliation and organizations this season than to see both teams finish toward the bottom of their respective leagues, well out of the playoffs. In recent games, there has been contention amongst Jackets fans about the playing time of Marchenko and other higher-performing young players.
My suggestion? Get them the ice time they deserve and need on the top line and pairings in Cleveland. Perhaps they can even give Cole Sillinger some time with his older brother, Owen, and hopefully have him regain some of the swagger and the scoring touch he put on display in his NHL rookie campaign last season.
#CBJ Kirill Marchenko leads the Blue Jackets in shots on goal (4), shot attempts (7), also has a hit, a blocked shot and a takeaway.
He's last among all #CBJ players with just 6:38 in ice time through two periods.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) December 16, 2022
What I was ready to call a multi-alarm fire has settled back into something a single firehouse can handle. For now.
It won’t take much for this former small smolder back in December to fully engulf the Cleveland Monsters. The questions to watch for the next couple of weeks are if the fight shown on Sunday holds and what, if anything, will the Monsters and Blue Jackets do to put the fire out.
Also, final question: can Fix-Wolansky please be moved back to his office near the faceoff dots on the power play? That’s where he thrives, and having him in a defender’s slot near the blue line is not doing this team any favors.
The Week to Come
As the Monsters slide into the All-Star break, they have a relatively light week with only two games. Both are at home on back-to-back nights against North Division rival Laval Rocket on Friday and Saturday. Friday is MHC Appreciation Night, with Saturday being a yearly fan-favorite Cleveland Rocks Night. This year, the first 10,000 fans will receive a Michael Stanley Celebration T-Shirt.
The team is set to practice from 10:00 a.m. – noon on
This weekend will be the ultimate test for the Monsters. Laval is only three points ahead of Cleveland in the standings and holds the final playoff spot in the North Division. Being a game under .500 and in a playoff spot one week removed from the All-Star Classic would be a massive victory for this young squad.
Cleveland trails in the season series 2-2-0-1. So, these victories in these games should be within reach.
Coach Vogelhuber issued the challenge. Will that response carry over into this coming week, or will bad habits rear their ugly head once again? We’ll see in next week’s Monday Monster Mash!
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