Final Weekend Starts with Bulldogs

Down to their final two games of the regular season, the Lake Erie Monsters (36-28-3-7) face a must-win test tonight as they begin the weekend against the Hamilton Bulldogs (32-34-2-5), a team the Monsters have beaten six straight times, and six of seven games this season. The Monsters sit in ninth place in the Western Conference entering the day, and are one of five teams with 82 points. Of the teams with 82 points, three would be in the playoffs if they started today (Milwaukee, Houston, Peoria), and due to tiebreakers, two would be on the outside looking in: the Monsters, and tomorrow night’s opponent in the season finale, Rochester. All of tonight’s action can be heard live on ESPN 850 WKNR, with Doug Plagens on the call, beginning at 7:30 PM.

Just once this season have the Monsters earned wins in four consecutive games, and that was between February 8 and February 15. Tonight, the Monsters have a chance to tie their longest winning streak of the season while they’re coming off one of the most impressive comeback wins in team history. Last Saturday, the Monsters trailed at home against Rockford by a 3-0 score late in the second period, but scored once before the middle frame expired, and a exploded for a three-goal third period to win 4-3. The power play was 3-7 in the game, which greatly aided the comeback effort. Prior to Saturday, the Monsters were in a 3-30 funk on the power play, so the power play output gives the Monsters a building block for the upcoming weekend.

Ryan Stoa is on a hot streak, with three goals and two assists over the Monsters current three-game win streak. The Monsters record this season when Stoa lands on the scoresheet shows the power forward’s ability to change the entire complexion of a game: the club is 17-4-1-2 when Stoa registers a goal or an assist. Stoa also leads the Monsters in points against Hamilton this season; he has five points in seven games against the Bulldogs. Another player who has seen success against Hamilton is Brad Malone, who has three points in five games against Hamilton this season. Malone has scored goals in back-to-back games.

Hamilton is fully-loaded with their top players with their parent club, the Montreal Canadiens, being done for the season. Louis LeBlanc, a former first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, has played just three games for Hamilton since February 3 due to call-ups to the next level, but is back in the fold for Hamilton to close the season. LeBlanc leads Hamilton with four points in five games against the Monsters this season, including a pair of goals. Forward Aaron Palushaj and defenseman Frederic St-Denis have been in similar situations, spending chunks of time with the parent club, but both are with Hamilton to close the regular season.

The game is a must-win for the Monsters, who are looking to continue their playoff push. It closes out an eight-game season series against the Bulldogs, and although the Monsters have controlled the season series, the games have been tight. Four of the seven meetings between the clubs this season have been decided by a single goal, and three of them have been Monsters shootout wins. With both teams having arguably their strongest lineups of the season, the game may have more of the playoff feel that has been noticeable in recent weeks, and neither team will be able to afford to have any lapses.

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