CLEVELAND -- On a typical day of practice at the end of February, the Lake Erie Monsters were running through their shootout drills. But by the end of the drill, it proved to be anything typical for Monsters goaltender Sami Aittokallio.
The 6-foot-1, 172-pound native of Tampere, Finland, squared up to stop a shootout shot from Monsters assistant captain J.T. Wyman. Wyman wound up from inside the blue line and fired a shot on net. Aittokallio made the save, but the shot hit him flush at the top of the cage of his goalie mask.
Aittokallio was diagnosed with a concussion, and ended up missing the next month of action.
"It was a tough incident with the injury to start with, with getting hit in the head in practice," Monsters coach Dean Chynoweth said. "You never know, with those, how long it's going to take. It took longer than we originally thought, but obviously, he took the necessary time because he looked pretty sharp in there.
"He got hit just to the top of the cage with a slap shot from between the tops of the circles, so the guy was in fairly tight."
Aittokallio returned to the lineup against the Rochester Americans last Friday night, and tallied a shutout in the 5-0 win at Quicken Loans Arena.
With his team needing every point it could get as the Monsters try to make a late-season push for the American Hockey League playoffs, Aittokallio again made an early lead stand up in Sunday's 3-0 win over Rochester.
Aittokallio earned first star of the game honors by making 23 saves and registering the first set of back-to-back shutouts for the Monsters since Tyler Weiman had consecutive shutouts on Jan. 11 and 14, 2009.
"I guess I was well rested, but I had a good week on the ice," Aittokallio said after Sunday's win. "It was good they gave me some time. I didn't have to play right after, so that was obviously good. I'm right back to where I was before.
"Obviously, I'm playing at a good level right now, but our guys are playing really (well) right now too. We can also score goals, like how many did we score this week? A lot. That always helps my job."
Aittokallio's return and the four straight wins on home ice in the month of March is a good sign for the Monsters, who will play their next seven games on the road, starting Wednesday in Chicago and continuing through the Midwest over the weekend in Milwaukee and then, back to the Windy City.
Then, the Monsters head South to Texas, where they will alternate games against the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars, including games against the Stars Friday and Sunday bookending a trip to San Antonio Saturday.
"It'd make me feel good if we could get into the playoffs, and we've got a tough road ahead of us," Chynoweth said.
"It's one game at a time on it. We go into Chicago and we're going to see them twice with Milwaukee in-between. Then, we go down to Texas, but we've got to break the trip up from the Chicago portion to the Texas portion and you just deal with it one game at a time."