Griffins navigated through up-and-down weekend

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

📝 by Patrick Williams

What a weekend to forget for the Grand Rapids Griffins.

No, really: The Griffins had orders to forget their affairs by head coach Ben Simon.

Coaching in the American Hockey League requires intuition, and Simon had to lean on instincts nurtured by captaining Notre Dame, grinding through an 11-season pro career, and putting in 12 campaigns behind various benches.

Forget two tough losses against the rival Chicago Wolves that closed out November. Put aside a tough loss this past Friday night at Van Andel Arena. And memory-hole an explosive first period this past Saturday night in which they chased a very capable goaltender in Rockford IceHogs starter Collin Delia with four first-period goals.

“You don’t dwell on your failures, and you don’t rest on your laurels,” Simon said after the Griffins handed Rockford a 6-2 defeat.

That message could apply to either of the Griffins’ weekend efforts. A night earlier, Delia had frustrated Grand Rapids with a 40-save night, 16 of those stops coming in the third period of a 4-1 Griffins loss.

Simon could have taken a hard-line approach after that loss. Grand Rapids had seen a 1-0 lead disappear as Rockford rolled off four unanswered goals. The Griffins had only picked up three of a possible 10 points in a five-game stretch, and they had a dropped their past four games at home. Big-picture-wise, with a road game against the rival Cleveland Monsters on Monday night looming, the follow-up with Rockford seemed like one of those possible junctures on the schedule that can send a team on its way or take its season into further perilous territory.

Instead Simon went positive.

“The message was not to get frustrated,” Simon said of his pre-game words. “‘Go out there and have fun. It’s a Saturday night in Grand Rapids. You guys been working extremely hard. You can’t be too focused on the negatives. Go out there, compete, play together, and just go have fun.’ When you lose games, you get frustrated, and things can start to fester.”

So they did. By 3:56 of Saturday night’s first period, the Griffins had a 2-0 lead. They took it to 3-0 by the 7:08 mark. By 10:18, Delia’s night had ended. And by the close of the first period and with Delia out, the Griffins owned a 5-0 lead.

Now Simon had a different challenge for a group that had been dealing with frustrating circumstances before the game began. He needed his players to handle that 5-0 lead appropriately, to play the sort of hockey that would prevent any bad habits from slipping into their individual or collective games.

And they mostly did, limiting Rockford to a pair of second-period goals and putting away the win. The Griffins took only two penalties down the final 40 minutes of play. And when Rockford had cut into the Griffins’ lead and made it 5-2, Grand Rapids forward Jonatan Berggren answered 1:25 later with a goal in the second period’s final minute to finish off the IceHogs.

“There was a bit of a lull in the second again, but we responded and did a good job on special teams,” said Kyle Criscuolo, who had a goal and an assist to take his point-scoring streak to six games.

Put any bunch of people in any room for a speech, and each person may recall the words they heard differently afterward. But to hear three different players play back Simon’s words after the game, his message came through clearly and without any confusion.

“He just said to us to keep having fun and work, and we will have a good chance to win,” said Berggren, who contributed a goal and an assist while working on a line with Criscuolo and Taro Hirose.

Said Criscuolo, “More than anything, he just wants us to have fun. I think we were starting to grip our sticks a little bit tight after a couple losses there. We have the horses in the locker room. So, he just wants us to enjoy it and work hard, and he told us the results will come as long as we’re giving everything we’ve got and sticking together.”

Forward Dominik Shine combined on a line with Tyler Spezia and Luke Witkowski to give Rockford a very frustrating, agitating look with each shift. He remembered Simon’s words similarly.

Said Shine, “We were kind of hanging our heads (after Friday’s loss). We felt pretty disappointed.

“[Simon] kind came in and said, ‘You’ve got to be thankful for being able to play hockey for a living. Just come in, have some fun, and come up with some energy.”