Lake Erie Monsters bring Cleveland a championship in dramatic fashion
Oliver Bjorkstrand beat the buzzer in the first overtime to start the party
Cleveland is the champion in something! While LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers look to mount an improbable comeback against the Golden State Warriors, the team they share a building with beat them to the championship punch.
The Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League beat the Hershey Bears, 1-0, in overtime in front of a sold out Quicken Loans Arena to complete the sweep and win the Calder Cup. It was the first hockey title for the city since 1964 and first championship of any kind since the Cleveland Crunch won the National Professional Soccer League in 1999.
Lake Erie, which is the top farm club of the Columbus Blue Jackets, went on the most dominant postseason run in the history of the American Hockey League, going 15-2 on their way to hoisting the second oldest trophy in hockey.
The victory came in dramatic fashion, with Oliver Bjorkstrand -- the playoff MVP -- scoring with 1.9 seconds remaining in the first overtime to break the 0-0 deadlock and start the party in Cleveland.
A franchise record 19,665 spectators were on hand to watch the championship game. That total also marks the largest crowd ever to watch a professional hockey game in Ohio. And they all were going crazy for this one.
This title is actually the 10th time a Cleveland team has won the Calder Cup. The Cleveland Barons were one of the AHL's top teams, winning nine Calder Cups between 1939 and 1964. Like most sports, the various professional hockey teams that came and went between that 1964 Calder Cup title and the Monsters in 2016 were unable to win any championships. Among them, the short-lived Cleveland Barons that played in the NHL before merging with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.
You could sense how hungry the city was for a championship of any kind with the way Cleveland turned out for the Calder Cup win.
On top of that, this Monsters team was a lot of fun. As noted, they were dominant on their run to the Calder Cup, with Bjorkstrand looking like a guy that wants his shot at the NHL next season with 10 goals in 17 games en route to MVP honors.
Lake Erie also got a massive postseason contribution from the Blue Jackets' most recent first-round draft pick, Zach Werenski. The 19-year-old defenseman had 14 points in 17 playoff games after signing with the team following his sophomore season at the University of Michigan. He only appeared in seven regular-season games before dominating the playoffs.
Additionally, the Monsters drew a lot of attention around the hockey world for their cool new post-win tradition.
It takes 15 wins to capture the Calder Cup, with the first round being a best-of-5 before the final three series go to best-of-7. Many teams do countdowns after their home wins to show how many they have left to the Cup. The Monsters went low-tech with their countdown and it was super effective as a way to get fans excited and give the players a role in the countdown.
Along the dasher boards, the Monsters put a countdown from 15, with each numeral between that and the Calder Cup. With each win, they'd spray paint a big black "X" on the corresponding number. Sunday night, they finally got to circle the goal. AHL commissioner David Andrews, passed off a black spray paint can to Lake Erie captain Ryan Craig to do the honors before presenting the Calder Cup.
It was a fitting moment for Craig, who at 34 years old and 640 career AHL games played, was a Calder Cup champion for the first time.
This victory also bodes well for the Columbus Blue Jackets after the abysmal season they just had. With the third overall pick in this year's draft and a crop of freshly-minted Calder Cup champions on the NHL roster, they could have a chance to turn things around rather quickly. Looking at the Tampa Bay Lightning, so much of their recent success is thanks in part to the players they developed in the AHL that also won a Calder Cup.
But this championship belongs first to Cleveland. And it's also a championship for Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers and the Monsters, who promised to bring one to the city. He may have been talking about the Cavs at the time, but hey, he still kept his word.
And this may not be a major league title and it may not fully quench their thirst for one, but it is a championship nonetheless. This team had tremendous support throughout the season, with the third highest average attendance of any team this year. With the way the fans turned out for the clinching game and the way they celebrated, there was nothing minor league about it.
So enjoy this one, Cleveland. It's been a while.
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