CLEVELAND – Lessons and change are a given at any level of hockey, even in a professional league like the American Hockey League. With 13 games remaining in the 2022-23 regular season, the Cleveland Monsters are still making changes, both in-game and between games to ice the best roster and find ways to win. Despite the relative youth and lack of experience both on the roster and in the coaching staff, there’s a lot of hope as the team dives head-first into the final month of the regular season.
What more, is that this is a push that will see the Monsters compete for a playoff berth against some of the top teams in the league. Not to mention games against the same teams competing for a dwindling number of playoff spots in the North Division. But with the right changes, leadership, and a little bit of luck, this is a sprint with a result fully in their grasp.
Push for the Playoffs
The month of March, like most of the 2022-23 AHL season, has been nothing short of a rollercoaster for the Monsters. On a positive note is that this Cleveland club has not lost back-to-back games since falling 6-2 against the Grand Rapids Griffins on February 25 and 6-5 at the hands of the Syracuse Crunch on March 1.
Since then, they’ve won four of their last seven and taken points in five of those games.
Starting in mid-February, the Monsters have felt “all in” for most of these games. Even in the odd instance when they’ve fallen in regulation by a wide margin, the team has still looked strong on the puck and highly driven to take any positives away from the game. The biggest focus has been on generating more offense while also getting a team-focused approach to winning games.
“I think we did a really good job with our forechecking tonight,” said forward Carson Meyer after Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Belleville Senators . “We really talked a lot about having (the third forward) stay in the battle. A lot of times that puck would pop out and and our third forward would be the one getting the puck and making the play. Our defense was being aggressive in the offensive zone and our forwards filling in for them at the point just adds to the to the offense.”
This has led to the last few weeks showcasing some of the best play of the season for a team that’s quite young in both years and pro experience.
Setting the Pace
Leading the charge for the Monsters is AHL superstar forward Trey Fix-Wolansky.
A few weeks ago, he joined Monsters alum Zac Dalpe and Mark Letestu as one of only three players in the Columbus Blue Jackets affiliation era to tally 50 points in a season. Now, with a two-point game on Sunday afternoon, he has moved into sole position of second place in Cleveland Monsters history for points with 134. Assuming he doesn’t go on an absolute meteoric tear for the rest of the season and he’s back with Cleveland next season, he will be set to eclipse Andrew Agozzino’s first-place record of 165 sometime in the 2023-24 AHL season.
🎶 Anything you can do, I can do better 🎶
With a perfect pass in transition from Trey Fix-Wolansky, Jake Christiansen skates with two Belleville defenders and snipes the puck into the net.
2-3 | 18:09 1st | #BELvsCLE pic.twitter.com/exqeKUlI9M
— Deana Weinheimer (@FPHMonsters) March 19, 2023
Fix-Wolansky has impressed his coaches and others around the organization with the leaps in maturity and skill this year:
“He’s come a long way just from a maturity level, skill level, and understanding that he needs to play for his team to have success,” head coach Trent Vogelhuber said earlier this month. “He’s been a good goal scorer and there’s been years where he’s had more goals than assists, but that’s a sign for me of some progress there. He’s making the players around him better and he’s helping our team get wins right now.”
His teammates also have noticed Fix-Wolansky’s team-first play and the leap in his playmaking skill in the AHL:
“He’s got an insane amount of skill. He’s got an NHL shot,” commented Meyer. “He’s creating plays every shift. For the rest of the team, we always have faith that no matter what the score is, we’re just one shot away because he can create on any particular shift.”
But those aren’t the only records Fix-Wolansky looks to set this season. He’s also on pace to set multiple team single-season records, including goals (33 set by Dalpe in 2018-19) and both assists and points (50 and 70, set by T.J. Hensick in 2009-10). Ben Walter also hit the 70-point mark a year later in 2010-11. There’s also a possibility that Fix-Wolansky may also upset Agozzino’s career points records for goals (67) or assists (98) as well.
On a personal note- Fix-Wolansky came into the league at the same time I started covering the team. Seeing his growth both as a player and a person has been a joy to watch. Even though he has obviously started to focus on his skills and lifting up his teammates, his speed and that often talked about “grit” are still essential parts of his game.
He’s a model for all of the younger players coming into this organization.
Speaking of those younger players…
It’s no secret that the Monsters have struggled through a heavy churn of call-ups and injuries this season. However, in the last few weeks, they’ve found themselves with a literal bounty of players available to fill their roster.
Since the start of March, they’ve recalled Ole Julian Bjorgvik-Holm from the Kalamazoo Wings, signed Justin Pearson to an Amateur Tryout Contract, gained Corson Ceulemans on a PTO, and added Mikael Pyyhtia from TPS Turku (Liiga). That doesn’t even account for Jon Gillies and Alex Whelan, both of who were acquired via trade earlier this month.
An anticipated update from @monstershockey practice! https://t.co/eFVfypNlZp
— Deana Weinheimer (@FPHMonsters) March 14, 2023
The youth infusion is strong on this team! However, this just gives the coaching staff plenty of leeway to make changes to their lineup and keep players fresh on a busy week.
The Week Ahead
Cleveland has an incredibly busy weekend ahead of them, including a home and home tilt against the North Division-leading (and playoff-clinched) Toronto Marlies. Rounding out the three-in-three set is a visit to the Rochester Americans on Sunday afternoon.
Rochester currently sits fourth in the North with 62 points and a 0.525 points percentage.
Cleveland holds the seventh (and last) spot in the North in points only. If you go by points percentage. they would actually jump ahead of both the fifth-place Belleville Senators and sixth-place Laval Rocket.
It goes without saying that Cleveland needs to claim every possible point they can for the rest of the season. There’s only a three-point spread between fourth and seventh place. Looking up at third place Syracuse, there are seven points separating them and the Monsters.
For the Monsters, a berth into the Calder Cup Playoffs, which they haven’t seen since the 2018-19 season, is possible. They just need to control what they can and hope the other teams don’t copy their strategy.
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