by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
From behind the lens of the American Hockey League, the Eastern Conference First Round matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings is more than just two powerful teams going head-to-head – it’s an opportunity to revisit some recent history.
When the Grand Rapids Griffins defeated the Syracuse Crunch to win the AHL’s Calder Cup championship in 2013, it also marked a graduation for many players in the series to the National Hockey League. Two short years later, their parent clubs are doing battle with many of the same faces hitting the ice in pursuit of another Cup.
Of the players on Detroit’s playoff roster, 10 have their names engraved on the Calder Cup as members of the 2013 Grand Rapids Griffins – Joakim Andersson, Danny DeKeyser, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco, Petr Mrazek, Gustav Nyquist, Teemu Pulkkinen, Riley Sheahan, and Tomas Tatar.
Tatar won the Jack Butterfield Trophy as most valuable player of the Calder Cup Playoffs that spring, with his league-leading 16 goals and team-best 21 points. This season, the 23-year-old winger led Detroit with 29 goals and finished third with 56 points while skating in all 82 games.
Mrazek, 23, played all 24 of Grand Rapids’ games in net during the 2013 postseason, going 15-9 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average with four shutouts. This year, his 16-9-2 mark and .918 save percentage earned him the start in Game 1 at Tampa Bay.
After starring with the Griffins for two seasons, Nyquist, 25, has been one of the Red Wings’ top offensive producers over the last two years, finishing fourth in team scoring in 2014-15. And Pulkkinen, 23, has had a breakthrough season in 2014-15, continuing to lead all AHL skaters with 34 goals for the Griffins while also appearing in 31 games with the Red Wings.
AHL success doesn’t always equal NHL success, a fact that has been proven time and time again. But for the core group that has traveled together from Grand Rapids to Detroit, the quick, sustainable success isn’t all that surprising.
“You never know when guys move up levels how quickly their transition is going to be, but I certainly felt that a number of those players were going to go up and do well,” said Griffins coach Jeff Blashill, who guided Grand Rapids to the Calder Cup in his first season with the team. “It was just going to be to what degree and how quickly. They’re talented guys who expect success, and it doesn’t surprise me that they’re having that.
“To watch guys go up to Detroit and have a lot of success is a great thing to see,” Blashill added. “We have a lot of really good people on that team that have worked extremely hard to position themselves to have success in the NHL, and it’s great to see them help Detroit gain that 24th consecutive playoff berth.”
Despite falling in the Calder Cup Finals in 2013, the Crunch, too, are prevalent on this year’s Lightning squad. Seven members of Syracuse’s playoff run from two years ago – Mark Barberio, J.T. Brown, Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, Ondrej Palat, and Andrej Sustr – are on Tampa Bay’s roster.
Dating back to their time with the Crunch, Palat and Johnson have skated together for parts of three seasons, and make up the Lightning’s famous “Triplets” line with fellow Syracuse grad Nikita Kucherov. Palat himself led the entire AHL in playoff scoring in 2013, with seven goals and 26 points in 18 games, while Johnson, the regular-season AHL MVP that year, was right behind him with 10 goals and 21 points in 18 games.
Though the Lightning have a number of heavy hitters and game-changers on their roster, it’s the Crunch alumni, fittingly, that Syracuse head coach Rob Zettler sees making a splash.
“When you blend in that kind of work ethic with high talent, then you really have something,” said Zettler, who was Jon Cooper’s assistant in Syracuse before Cooper was promoted to Tampa. “Both [Palat and Johnson] carry that with them, and they carry a lot of passion for the game. There’s a lot of love for the game of hockey between those two.”
Though Palat and Mrazek jump off the page as easy stars for their respective teams during that 2013 run, both Zettler and Blashill have zero hesitation when naming heart-and-soul players that might miss the scoresheet but play an integral role in the team’s success.
“[Luke Glendening] was somebody who started in Toledo (ECHL) that year and earned his way onto our team and then earned his way into a big role with us,” Blashill said. “A lot of nights he was matched up with Tyler Johnson and trying to shut Tyler down, and we all know that’s a real tough task. Luke did it great, and I’m assuming he’ll spend some time this year doing the same thing.
“He’s one of those guys that’s a little unheralded,” Blashill added. “He’s not all over the scoresheet but he’s a big-time winner, and he’s done it at every level.”
For the Crunch, it was J.T. Brown.
“He had a huge impact on the series for us. He’s a real valuable player,” Zettler said. “He played on our checking line throughout the playoffs with Mike Angelidis and J.T. Wyman and played against each team’s top line and did an outstanding job for us. He scored some key goals along the way, too.”
With Game 1 in the books as a 3-2 win for Detroit, the series is already taking on a decidedly familiar feel. Crunch graduates Nikita Nesterov (goal) and Alex Killorn (assist) got on the scoresheet for the Lightning, while Glendening scored the winning goal shorthanded on a spectacular backhand shot early in the third period, and Mrazek’s 44 saves earned him First Star honors in his first career Stanley Cup Playoff game.
“[Mrazek’s] a guy who I always thought, one of his greatest strengths is that he doesn’t get nervous,” Blashill said. “In high-pressure situations, he was always able to stay calm and really execute. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to do that again.”