By Matt Gajtka –
The Grand Rapids Griffins came up empty in two opportunities to hoist the Calder Cup this weekend, as consecutive wins by the Syracuse Crunch at Van Andel Arena turned a potential sweep into at least a six-game affair.
As one might expect, the Griffins conceded nothing after the Crunch won Game 5 by a score of 5-2. In fact, they were downright sunny about their prospects in Syracuse for Tuesday’s Game 6.
“I know I’d rather be up 3-2 than down in the series, no matter how you get there,” Griffins coach Jeff Blashill said.
As obvious as that sounds, the numbers are overwhelmingly on Blashill’s side. Thirty-four of the previous 76 Calder Cup Finals have gone to six games; the team ahead 3-2 has won 30 of those, a more lopsided spread than math would dictate.
Adding to the Griffins’ confidence are their twin victories at Onondaga County War Memorial Arena to start the series. Grand Rapids prevailed 3-1 on June 8 and 6-4 the next night to stun the Crunch, who were 11-1 in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
“We are comfortable up there,” said Tomas Tatar, whose 19 playoff points pace the Griffins. “We had some success and look forward to going back.”
Grand Rapids also has more recent evidence in its favor: a 42-22 shot advantage in Game 5, including a 20-5 edge in the second period.
“We did a nice job applying pressure and playing what we call a ‘half-ice’ game,” Blashill said. “We were able to ‘reload’ and get back behind the puck when we lost it, so we could create more turnovers and get the puck again.”
The only thing preventing Grand Rapids from taking control during the second period? Syracuse goalie Cedrick Desjardins, who made 40 saves – many of them spectacular – in earning his 13th win of the postseason.
“At times your goalie has to be your best player,” Crunch coach Rob Zettler said. “They carried the play and were all over us in the second [period]. Cedrick was outstanding…I can’t count how many great saves he made.
“He’s a ‘gamer.’ He’s calm, even when we get hemmed in our zone.”
As far as Desjardins’ counterpart goes, Grand Rapids rookie netminder Petr Mrazek allowed four goals on 21 shots (Syracuse added an empty-netter). Blashill stood behind his 21-year-old goalie after the game.
“Petr played good,” Blashill said. “At times he’s been better [in the playoffs] but you can’t expect a guy to be great in every game. He thrives in big moments…he’ll be fine.”
Game 5 featured a second consecutive complete sellout at Van Andel Arena, with 10,834 hockey fans jamming the 17-year-old building. The Griffins drew 31,770 total customers to the middle three games of the Calder Cup Final.
The final playoff attendance of 72,360 set a Griffins franchise record. In 13 home postseason dates, Grand Rapids averaged 5,566 fans, second-best among 16 playoff teams. Hershey’s 7,559 average led the AHL this spring.
The Griffins pleased a crowd of 10,000-plus in Game 3, a 4-2 win that pushed the team within a win of the city’s first pro hockey title. However, Blashill shook off any notion that disappointing the loyal congregation had an effect on his club moving forward.
“I respect how much [winning the Calder Cup] would mean to the team and the organization,” said the first-year Griffins coach, “but my thought process right now is so far from that.”
This is a Grand Rapids-based team’s sixth trip to a championship series. The International Hockey League’s Rockets lost three straight Turner Cup Finals to Toledo in the early 1950s, while the Owls (1979) and Griffins (2000) also dropped decisions in the IHL’s final showdown.
The Owls were the only other Grand Rapids team to come within a game of the prize, but they lost a Game 7 to Kalamazoo.
Panik time for Syracuse
Although the Czech-born Ondrej Palat (7g, 18a) leads the Crunch in playoff scoring with 25 points, Slovakian winger Richard Panik has a team-best six points (4g, 2a) in the Calder Cup Final.
Panik was a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2009 NHL Draft. At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, he brings more to the ice than just good hands, which he has put on display during his current four-game goal streak.
“Richard is big, strong and hard to handle,” Zettler said. “He’s been a difference-maker in the last three games. He can get to the middle of the ice and use his great shot.”
Panik skated in 25 NHL games this season, the most of any Crunch player. The 22-year-old had nine points in Tampa Bay and 41 in 51 games with Syracuse.
The Griffins have three players who saw more NHL action than Panik this year: Joakim Andersson (52 games), Gustav Nyquist (36) and Brian Lashoff (34), with all of those coming in Detroit.
Boys of summer?
Once the Griffins advanced past the Western Conference final, they were assured of playing deeper into the year than any other team in franchise annals. June 5 was the previous latest game in Grand Rapids hockey history, a record set in Game 6 of the 2000 Turner Cup Final vs. Chicago.
Coincidentally, whenever the Calder Cup Final wraps up, it will be the latest date in AHL history. Norfolk, featuring 10 current Syracuse players, finished last year’s Final sweep of Toronto on June 9.
This year’s Game 7, if necessary, would be Thursday, June 20.