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Griffins gelling at just the right time

by Alan Cross | AHL On The Beat Archive

 

The Grand Rapids Griffins have played incredible hockey in the past month and a half.
 
Under the charge of third-year head coach Jeff Blashill, the Griffins struggled in the first half of the season to produce consistent results. While the team wasn’t performing terribly, it certainly wasn’t performing to the standards that fans have come to expect from the Blashill era of hockey in Grand Rapids.
 
Through 39 games, just one past the midway point of the season, the Griffins owned a 19-16-3-1 record (0.538), ranking them fourth in the Midwest Division and tying for eighth in the Western Conference. The Rockford IceHogs led the Midwest 12 points ahead of Grand Rapids, while the Oklahoma City Barons sat atop the conference with a 19-point lead on the team.
 
Then, something clicked.
 
On Jan. 23, the Utica Comets paid their first-ever visit to Van Andel Arena in the midst of a four-game losing streak for Grand Rapids. In a seemingly normal victory, the Griffins defeated the North Division leaders 5-1 to snap their skid.
 
Unbeknownst to anyone, that night’s victory over the Comets would kick off Grand Rapids’ meteoric rise to the top of the standings, in which a 17-1-3-0 performance in their next 21 games currently sees the Griffins in first in the Western Conference. The only regulation loss in that span came in the form of a 4-0 shutout by the Milwaukee Admirals on Jan. 31.
 
The points rolled in from there. Upon defeating the Charlotte Checkers 3-2 on Tuesday, the Griffins tied a franchise record for the longest point streak with 16 straight games (13-0-3-0). The feat was first achieved during the team’s second AHL season, from Oct. 25-Nov. 30, 2002 (11-0-3-2 = W-L-T-OTL).
 
The light switch was turned on at the right time for the Griffins, who were previously headed toward a toe-to-toe battle for playoff positioning in the second half of the season. So what sparked the change for the team?
 
Anyone paying attention to the American Hockey League this year would give you one name: Teemu Pulkkinen. The league’s leading scorer, Pulkkinen has amassed 61 points in 46 AHL games this season. Thirty-four of those points are goals.
 
While the quietly confident Pulkkinen has contributed to Grand Rapids’ recent success, he’s also been busy helping the Detroit Red Wings in their push to the playoffs. During the Griffins’ streak, he’s missed 10 of 21 games.
 
Sure, he scored 22 points (14-8—22) in his 11 games during that time, but Grand Rapids hasn’t been able to rely solely on the Finnish sniper.
 
The Griffins also lost their third-highest scorer, Mitch Callahan, to a season-ending ACL injury on Feb. 13, saying goodbye to their best grind-and-go player. Veteran defensemanBrennan Evans has missed nine games due to injury as well.
 
Seemingly, the team should not be performing at the level it is, with many of its best players consistently missing. But with a well of talent and a lot of determination, the Red Wings’ prospects have started to blossom, a true testament to the scouting prowess of the organization. It’s been the key to the Griffins’ transformation into a powerhouse. 
 
A few of Grand Rapids’ major contributors along the 21-game stretch:
• Andy Miele – Currently ranking third in scoring in the AHL, the former Hobey Baker winner has chipped in seven goals and 17 assists. 
• Mark Zengerle – A first-year pro, this red-hot rookie has seven goals, 11 assists and has been held scoreless only once in his last 14 games.
• Petr Mrazek – In a seven-game stint while on loan from Detroit (Feb. 20-March 6), Mrazek didn’t suffer a regulation loss with a 6-0-1 record, a 1.13 GAA, a 0.927 save percentage, and three shutouts. 
• Jared Coreau – The rookie goaltender has started in seven games during the last 21, stringing together wins in each of them, including back-to-back shutouts against Iowa and Milwaukee. For now, he’s with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.
 
“I thought from the beginning of the season, we’ve seen some real good growth of players and some have been consistent all year,” said Blashill. “As you lose guys, loss is negated if you have certain players that step into those roles and play at a high level. I think Zengerle and Marek Tvrdon, amongst others, have done a real good job at stepping into those roles as the season has gone along, which has allowed us to keep up the scoring.
 
“We’ve had good performances all year long from Miele and Landon Ferraro, but we’ve had certain players who have missed chunks of time like Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha. When we have our complete lineup together, it gives a great ability to have depth of scoring.”
 
The Griffins have outscored their opponents 198 to 144, giving the team a league-leading plus-54 goal differential. While the Manchester Monarchs (+46) and Hershey Bears(+39) follow behind, the next-closest Western Conference team is the IceHogs with plus-22.
 
That’s a lot of goals.
 
The Griffins now, as they say, are gellin’. The team has shades of the squad that hoisted the Calder Cup just two years ago and, while it’s a long road to the playoffs, continued team synergy could see Grand Rapids become a serious threat to once again win the whole thing.