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March 3, 2014

by Alan Cross –

The Grand Rapids Griffins are at it again.

After posting an unusually hot-and-cold 8-9-1-1 record to begin 2014, the defending Calder Cup champions seem to have worked out their mid-season kinks. The Griffins failed to secure consecutive victories over a 12-game span from Jan. 18-Feb. 21, but are now on a five-game winning streak, their third-longest of the season behind two seven-game stretches from Oct. 26-Nov. 8 and Nov. 20-Dec. 7.

“When you’re losing, you’re probably not doing enough good things,” said Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill. “We looked at the process, and I don’t think that in our last little bit that the process has been good enough. Obviously, winning creates a winning attitude and losing can be contagious too, so you want to stay away from it as much as possible.”

Grand Rapids’ rejuvenation began with a 4-3 edging of the Oklahoma City Barons on Feb. 22, dashing a six-game home winless streak. The next day, the Griffins narrowly defeated the Milwaukee Admirals, 1-0, in a shootout at Van Andel Arena thanks to veteran defenseman Brennan Evans, who put away the game-winning goal in the first shootout attempt of his 11-year career.

“At the end, we made one more play than [Oklahoma City],” said Blashill when asked about the Griffins’ turn of fate. “Sunday was a good gut performance by two teams that were playing their third in three, and I thought Petr [Mrazek] was real good and so was [Milwaukee’s Scott Darling].

“I know that both games showed signs of real, real good process and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

With the process back on track, the Griffins have 19 games remaining in the regular season, 11 of which will be on the road.

“I think over the course of a year and a half that we’ve been here together as a group, we’ve done a good job of playing on the road,” Blashill said. “It obviously presents different challenges, but there are positives you can gain from it from a team camaraderie standpoint.  We know that there are going to be great challenges ahead of us, but we’re comfortable with it.”

Comfortable is right, as the team walked away with three consecutive victories on enemy ice last week, extending its winning streak to five games.

The Griffins currently hold a 17-7-2-1 away record and have earned two points in each of their last four games away from Van Andel Arena. To kick off the season, the Griffins earned a nine-game road point streak from Oct. 4-Nov. 8, which still holds up as the longest such streak of any team in the league. Looking back just a year ago, Blashill’s first turn with Grand Rapids yielded a 21-14-1-2 road record.

“What we talk about is getting six points out of every 10 in a five-game segment. We think that if you do that, that puts you in a playoff position and the rest takes care of itself,” Blashill asserted.

Currently, the Griffins sit atop both the Midwest Division and Western Conference but face strict competition from other division opponents vying for a playoff spot. In particular, the very hungry Chicago Wolves (33-17-4-2, 73 pts.), who trail by just three points, have set their sights on the first-place spot.

Entering the Calder Cup Playoffs, each division champion earns a top-three seed in the playoffs. Within each conference, the next five highest point-getters, regardless of division, clinch a playoff berth to form the 16 teams that will vie for the AHL’s ultimate prize.

The Griffins are 16 points ahead of Oklahoma City, the ninth-place team in the Western Conference.

While the Griffins’ playoff forecast calls for blue skies, 10 of their 19 remaining regular season games will be against Midwest teams, all who have proved their resilience and depth of skill. Two more games against the Wolves will highlight the remainder of the season, likely playing a huge part in determining the eventual Midwest Division champion.

The competition doesn’t stop at the Midwest border, either. Grand Rapids will face other teams who have surged in the latter half of the season, including rematches with the Barons and San Antonio Rampage.

“I don’t look at the points really, but I do know that each team is really good, and we’ve had to play each [Midwest] team a large number of times,” Blashill said. “But I also say that the spread in some of the other parts of the league might be different, like Oklahoma City and San Antonio are much better teams than they were earlier in the season.”

Standard fare in the AHL; most teams endure an ebb and flow of talent depending on the status of their parent clubs. Grand Rapids, for instance, began the season with a bang, but the long-term promotions of forwards Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan to the Detroit Red Wings affected the Griffins’ first-place sustainability.

“The point spread doesn’t matter. The positioning in the standings? It matters, but that’s not our focus. Our focus is on how we’re playing and if we’re getting our six out of 10,” said Blashill.

And as always, there’s room for improvement as the Griffins look to become the 10th team in history to claim back-to-back Calder Cups.

“We just have to get better. We’re giving up, at times, a few too many chances. We’re not creating enough O-zone time, so we need to do a better job making sure we don’t give up anything easy and a better job at breaking our puck out and regrouping our neutral zone transition fast so that we can spend a lot of time in the other team’s end,” Blashill said. “I’ve always been a huge, huge believer that the best defense is playing in the other team’s end, so we have to do a real good job of that here down the stretch.”

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