By Pat Evans -
GRAND RAPIDS - Following an emotion-filled banner raising, the Griffins started fast against the Milwaukee Admirals but still fell, 3-2 in their 18th home opener Friday night at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids.
First-period goals from Gustav Nyquist and Jeff Hoggan couldn’t propel Grand Rapids to home-opening win and drop the team to 2-1-1 on the season. The goals were the third of the season for each.
The team, including staff, was announced prior to opening faceoff and was welcomed by former Grand Rapids professional hockey players, owners Dan DeVos and David Van Andel as well as the Griffins Youth Foundation to raise the banner to the rafters.
Goaltender Petr Mrazek, Nyquist and Hoggan — who carried the Calder Cup onto the ice — received the loudest ovations from the sold-out arena.
Grand Rapids also had a player suit up who hadn’t skated at Van Andel Arena since 2009; Darren Helm, on lone for a conditioning stint from the Red Wings as he attempts to overcome a back injury, recorded three shots on goal in his first AHL game since 2009.
The Griffins came out looking like a well-oiled reigning champion, connecting on quick passes, and Nyquist slipped a puck into the net just 1:20 into the game.
“We showed right away the guys were excited and we had a lot of jump,” Hoggan said. “We came out exactly the way we wanted to.”
Grand Rapids continued its polished play in the first period, save for a short-handed stint when Andrej Nestrasil went to the box for interference 10:52 into the period. Milwaukee defenseman Anthony Bitetto sent a long shot from the top of the left circle past Mrazek to knot it up.
Teemu Pulkkinen slipped a pass across the crease for Hoggan to slap into the net to move the Griffins ahead 2-1 with 4:27 left in the period.
“Pulkki found a great spot, stole the puck found me backdoor,” Hoggan said. “Just right spot right time, I managed to get the puck in. you get up one early and that one goal lead, really put them on their heels, couldn’t get her done tonight.”
The Griffins remained a goal up for much of the second period. The Admirals, however, acted with fury late in the period.
Center Colton Sissons buried a rebound past Mrazek with 2:04 left in the period to tie the game. About a minute later, Griffin defenseman Ryan Sproul was called for holding, giving Milwaukee a man advantage.
Bitetto made the Griffins pay just 16 seconds into the powerplay with his second goal of the game to give the Admirals a 3-2 lead heading into the third period.
The second period was a huge swing of momentum from the game that started on a high note for the Griffins.
“We made some mistakes, but then we figured we go back and improve on some things, but we actually took a step back,” Hoggan said. “I don’t know if we ran out of gas, hit that high and go back down, we just couldn’t sustain it for whatever reason.”
The third period held steady as the Griffins and Admirals both failed to capitalize on a few good chances each. Mrazek was pulled late in the third, but the man-advantage didn’t help the Griffins.
Head coach Jeff Blashill said it was a step back from the team’s three road games to open the season. Still, it’s a long season and the Griffin’s first home loss last season was at the hands of Milwaukee, 3-2.
“They poured it on a little bit and we stopped skating in terms of coming back and supporting our D so that we could transition faster and we ended playing in our end,” Blashill said. “It wasn’t quite as good as we’ve played at times. We have lot’s of room for improvement, so we’re gonna have to continue to get a lot better.”