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Milwaukee Admirals 5 at GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS 4

Feb. 4, 2017

– The Milwaukee Admirals spoiled the return of Jimmy Howard to the Grand Rapids Griffins on Saturday, riding a pair of fortunate bounces in the early going to a 5-4 victory at Van Andel Arena.

Howard, assigned by the Detroit Red Wings for conditioning earlier today, made 24 saves in his first Griffins appearance in nearly eight years. Meanwhile, the Admirals, who totaled only seven goals in their first five clashes with Grand Rapids this season and just one over the previous three, broke a nine-game winless streak at Van Andel Arena that spanned just over two full years.

The Griffins (29-13-1-2), who still lead the Central Division by five points over the second-place Admirals (26-15-2-2), will next host the Manitoba Moose on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Having been shut out in each of its previous two meetings with the Griffins, Milwaukee scored a fluky goal 5:01 into the game to snap its series scoreless streak at 127:53. Kevin Fiala came out from behind the net and tried to thread a pass through the slot, but the puck hit the blade of Howard’s stick, popped backward into the air, landed on the netminder’s back and fell across the line.

The poor puck luck continued during an Admirals power play at 9:40. From below the left circle, Pontus Aberg sent a feed across the goal mouth toward Trevor Smith, but the puck deflected off the skate of Nathan Paetsch and inside the right post for a 2-0 Milwaukee lead.

Grand Rapids staunched the bleeding on a goal by Kyle Criscuolo 1:05 later, as he took a centering pass from Tyler Bertuzzi out of the right corner and beat Juuse Saros top-shelf from the edge of the left circle. But just when it looked like that 2-1 score might hold into intermission, a faceoff to Howard’s right with four seconds remaining turned disastrous. Milwaukee won the draw and fired a shot that was stopped, but Frederick Gaudreau put the rebound through Howard’s pads with just under two ticks left to once again make it a two-goal game.

Past the midpoint of period two, and less than a minute after Howard made a nice save to smother a Milwaukee 2-on-1, the home team pulled to within 3-2 thanks to the only current Griffin who previously played with Howard in Grand Rapids. Defenseman Brian Lashoff, who made his pro debut at the end of Howard’s final Griffins season of 2008-09, pinched down to score a backdoor goal off Matt Lorito’s pass at the 11:51 mark.

A shooting gallery saw the teams combine for three goals in the first 4:29 of the third period. Fiala took advantage of a sprawled Howard to score on a wraparound at 1:09, before Colin Campbell cut the deficit to 4-3 at 2:44, solving Saros by deflecting a puck that Bertuzzi threw on net from the left half-wall. But the Admirals would build their fourth two-goal lead of the night less than two minutes later, as Aberg stole the puck at the Grand Rapids blue line and quickly beat Howard from the right dot.

For the fourth time, the Griffins trimmed Milwaukee’s lead to one on a power play goal with 8:56 remaining, as Eric Tangradi took root in front of Saros and tipped home Ben Street’s blast from the point.

Grand Rapids enjoyed a 6-on-4 power play during the final minute thanks to a delay of game penalty on Andrew O’Brien and Howard’s departure for an extra attacker, but the Admirals held strong to secure their first win in West Michigan since Jan. 31, 2015.

Saros, who himself was reassigned by the Nashville Predators to Milwaukee this morning, earned the win behind 22 saves.

Notes: Howard played his first game in a Griffins uniform since May 6, 2009 at Van Andel Arena, setting a franchise record for longest time between appearances (2,831 days, or seven years, eight months and 28 days). The record had been held by Jeff Nelson, the brother of Griffins head coach Todd Nelson (2,375 days, or six years, six months and one day, from April 28, 1997 to Oct. 29, 2003)...This season’s fourth sellout of 10,834 raised the Griffins’ average above the eight thousand mark, to 8,045.

Three Stars: 1. MIL Fiala (two goals, assist); 2. MIL Aberg (two goals, assist); 3. GR Bertuzzi (two assists)