By Matt Gajtka -
GRAND RAPIDS - In the 77-year history of the American Hockey League, a team has built a 3-0 lead in the Calder Cup Final 23 times. The first 22 times, that team has won the championship.
The Grand Rapids Griffins are the most recent in that line of strong starters, but after two consecutive losses on home ice, their ultimate victory has been thrown into some doubt.
Buoyed by two power-play goals and stalwart goaltending from Cedrick Desjardins, the Syracuse Crunch stayed alive for the second straight night, taking Game 5 of the AHL title series 5-2 on Saturday night at Van Andel Arena.
Crunch winger Ondrej Palat netted a goal and two assists, while AHL regular-season MVP Tyler Johnson scored a goal and added a helper. Syracuse will now try to defend its building in Tuesday night’s Game 6, which will serve as Grand Rapids’ third opportunity to win its first league crown.
The Griffins, who got goals from Tristan Grant and Tomas Tatar, outpaced the visiting Crunch 42-22 in the shots-on-goal category Saturday, but never had the lead in their final home game of the season.
Desjardins had a lot to do with that, making 19 of his 40 saves in the second period, when Grand Rapids outgunned Syracuse 20-5 and seemed constantly on the verge of filling the net. Instead, the Crunch’s Richard Panik buried the go-ahead goal at 11:59 of the middle stanza, then Johnson increased the gap to 4-2 less than a minute into the third.
“I thought we were in a great spot after two periods, even though we were down,” Griffins first-year coach Jeff Blashill said. “The fourth goal they got was a freebie, and you can’t give those to a good team.”
The two-goal deficit proved too much for the Griffins to overcome, and Dan Sexton’s empty-netter with 2:44 to play clinched the Crunch’s second must-have win in 24 hours. The home team is 1-4 in the series, with Grand Rapids’ 4-2 victory in Game 3 the only outlier.
Although they’ve dropped a pair while on the precipice of winning the first league championship in Grand Rapids pro hockey history, Blashill was resolute that his club had played well enough to prevail both Friday and Saturday.
“Tonight was probably our best game of the series,” Blashill said. “We talk a lot about process, and I think if we play that way going forward, we’ll be in good shape.
“If you didn’t watch the first three games of the series, you might’ve thought it was going to be easy [to win the title]. We knew it was gonna be tough. That’s how a final series should be.”
Game 6 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Onondaga County War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. The Griffins won the opening two games there last Saturday and Sunday, but expect an especially rowdy scene after the Crunch have proven resilient.
“There’s been great energy in every game this series, both home and away,” Blashill said.
Syracuse coach Rob Zettler, who was promoted from assistant in late March when former boss Jon Cooper took over the parent Tampa Bay Lightning, looked like he was relishing the opportunity for his team, which features 10 players from last year’s Calder Cup-winning Norfolk club.
“I’ve been saying, Grand Rapids should’ve closed it out at home,” Zettler said. “I said ‘Don’t let us win one’ before Game 3 and ‘Don’t let us win two’ tonight. It’s going to be a long ride back to Syracuse for them.”
Both teams’ power plays had experienced an outage in Games 3 and 4, combining to go scoreless on 19 opportunities during that span. The trend continued early in Game 5, as each side misfired on an early advantage.
A big save by Desjardins on Joakim Andersson set up the Crunch’s icebreaker, with play continuing back in the Griffins’ end afterwards. Defenseman Chad Billins rushed an airborne pass to the right of his net, where Palat picked it off and stashed a quick shot under Petr Mrazek’s blocker at 8:39.
Syracuse also struck first in its 4-2 Game 3 loss Wednesday, but the visitors added another in Game 5 for their first two-goal lead of the series. With Grand Rapids’ Danny DeKeyser serving his second penalty of the period, Brett Connolly redirected an accurate feed from Johnson under the crossbar with 3:51 to go before intermission.
“That was a great pass through about three guys,” Zettler said. “Johnson has come alive for us a bit the last two games.”
Perhaps the Crunch was shocked to connect on the power play for the first time in 15 tries, but the Griffins dominated the final moments of the frame. Grant injected new life into the building when he buried the rebound of Landon Ferraro’s driving backhand with 2:22 on the clock.
Grant’s goal was just his second of the playoffs and sixth in 98 games this season. Captain Jeff Hoggan, the only Griffin to ever win the Calder Cup prior to this year, nearly brought Grand Rapids even, but his 10-foot drive drilled the crossbar seconds after Grant scored.
Despite the near-miss, the Griffins carried over their strong play into the second period. A massive clean hit by Grand Rapids blueliner Brennan Evans further stoked the fire, inducing Palat to take a retaliatory roughing penalty 4 1/2 minutes in.
Moments later, the Griffins ended a run of 13 straight fruitless power plays when Tatar finished a 3-on-1 rush with his team-leading 14th goal of the playoffs to tie the game. Gustav Nyquist made it happen by cruising down the right wing and tucking a perfect feed to Tatar in front.
The immense skill of Tatar and Nyquist was on display again on the Griffins’ next 5-on-4 advantage, which arrived just two minutes after Tatar’s goal woke up the capacity crowd. However, Desjardins rose to the occasion, shutting down numerous point-blank Grand Rapids chances, capped by a post-to-post pad stop on Nyquist’s backdoor one-timer.
“I think if we score there, it’s a different game,” said Tatar, whose 19 playoff points pace the Griffins. “I thought we were the better team tonight…we had lots of chances.”
Clearly rolling at that point, the Griffins ended up with 20 shots in the period, one shy of a franchise playoff record and the most the Crunch had allowed in a frame all season. Still, Syracuse managed to make the most of its few opportunities, snatching the lead back with 8:01 remaining in the second.
It was Panik connecting this time, as the Crunch converted on their second straight power play. The Czech winger got his fourth goal in four games and eighth of the postseason by snapping a low shot under Mrazek from the left circle.
For the second consecutive night, and despite getting outshot 33-14 through two periods, Syracuse carried a 3-2 lead into the third. To compound Grand Rapids’ frustration, the Crunch doubled their advantage just 36 seconds into the third when Johnson rapped home the rebound of Palat’s backhand shot.
Palat weaved through three Griffins before getting credit for the assist, his playoff-best 25th point. For Johnson, it was his 21st postseason point after leading the Crunch with 65 in 62 regular-season games.
“I was so sure we were going to pull it off after the second period,” Tatar said. “When they scored in the first minute of the third, it got a lot tougher for us.”
Closing the series won’t get any easier in Syracuse, but Tatar chose to look at the bright side of the Griffins’ situation.
“We haven’t had any easy series so far, so I guess that’s the way it’s going to be for us,” he said. “For them, it’s gotta be tough to win four in a row.
“We’re still in good position.”