Shootout affinity a plus for Griffins

by Alan Cross || AHL On The Beat Archive

One shooter. One goalie. One high-stakes opportunity to propel your team to victory.

The shootout arguably provides the best edge-of-your-seat action that hockey has to offer. When regulation and overtime play fail to yield a victor, the shootout becomes the ultimate determinant of worthiness. Furthermore, fans revel in the exhilaration of pitting two players against one another in such a bare bones method.

For the Grand Rapids Griffins this season, post-regulation play has already reared its thrilling head towards the team. The Griffins have been to overtime in three of their first 10 matches in their 2013-14 campaign, with two of those games resulting in a shootout. Currently ranked second in the Midwest Division with 14 points, Grand Rapids has earned four of those points beyond the first three frames.

When asked about his opinion on the intense environment of the shootout, where one wrong move could cause a devastating loss, Gustav Nyquist had one thing to say.

“I like the shootout.”

Nyquist’s affinity for the shootout comes as no surprise, considering the fact that he has enthralled thousands of fans with his flashy techniques and, more importantly, has posted commendable results for the Griffins.

Nyquist currently holds a perfect shootout record this season after effortlessly maneuvering the puck past Hamilton Bulldogs netminder Robert Mayer in an Oct. 12 shootout victory, and then casually befuddling Rockford IceHogs goaltender Antti Raanta in Grand Rapids’ shootout loss on Oct. 19.

In his 2012-13 Calder Cup-winning season with the Griffins, he buried three out of seven attempts, producing a 42.9 percent shootout success rate.

“I think it’s a fun way to win the game. Some people don’t like it, some people do,” Nyquist said. “I think it’s a good way to play for the extra point and give the crowd a little bit of excitement while they see some fun moves on the ice.”

Griffins goaltending sensation Petr Mrazek has also found success in this department, among many others. Mrazek won three out of five shootouts during his rookie season with Grand Rapids, blocking 18 of 26 attempts. He has appeared in both shootouts this season, stonewalling seven of 10 attempts.

Both Mrazek and Nyquist have been strong contributors to the Griffins’ shootout not only due to their sheer level of skill, but also because of their ability to get behind the eyes of their competitor. Ultimately, there’s only so much preparation possible; the rest comes down to the moment when the skater and goalie come face-to-face.

Shooters and goalies alike must find a delicate balance between action and reaction.

For Mrazek, it’s all about reaction.

“I try to watch a shooter during the game and pay attention to what he’s doing. Or sometimes someone will get a breakaway in a game; that helps,” Mrazek said. “I just try to think to myself what I would do in that situation.”

For Nyquist, it’s all about the action.

“I have a plan, I know what I want to do. Then if I see something or the attempt isn’t going the way I want it to, I’ve got to be quick to think about something else,” said Nyquist. “Every year it’s a lot of new goalies in this league, a lot of young prospects coming up, so sometimes you don’t know too much about the goalie. But you try to watch the guys who go ahead of you and see what they’re doing.”

The Halmstad, Sweden, native has seen tremendous success from one dazzling move in particular: a behind-the-back spin to dump the puck directly past a very confused goaltender. The move made multiple appearances in the 2012-13 season while Nyquist was with the Griffins, much to the delight of thousands of screaming fans. It’s the closest thing he has to a signature move.

Still, he won’t be calling it “The Gus” anytime soon.

“Some guys have done it before me,” Nyquist said. “I think I’ve scored on every stab at it down here in the AHL and then I tried it against Antti Niemi of San Jose and he just got a toe on it, so that one was a bit of a bummer. I would like to have that one back, but it’s been going well so far.”

In a league as deadlocked in skill as the American Hockey League, seizing the extra points in a shootout can determine the entire fate of a team. Within the Midwest Division last year, a mere five points separated Grand Rapids, which was the eventual Calder Cup champion, and Rockford, which failed to even clinch a playoff spot.

For the Griffins, Nyquist and Mrazek will prove to be absolutely essential in their quest to securing a repeat title.