June 17, 2013
by Kyle Kujawa - griffinshockey.com
The storybook ending always has the home team coming back to pull off a dramatic win in front of a packed house. It didn’t go that way for the Griffins, but on the eve of their 100th game of the 2012-13 season, their mantra won’t change as the Calder Cup Finals head back to Syracuse.
“Here’s the deal: Game 1 was close, and we won,” said head coach Jeff Blashill. “Game 2 was close, and we won. I think the same is true in Games 3, 4 and 5. We won one of those, and we lost two. There’s no secret to this. We have to come in here and play good hockey.”
Although a sweep in front of a beyond-capacity Van Andel Arena would have been an incredible ending to a great season, it wasn’t in the cards. But the Griffins aren’t looking negatively at the lost opportunity, instead focusing on the fact that they are still one win away from their first Calder Cup championship.
“I don’t think many people expected us to win the whole thing coming into this anyway, right?” said captain Jeff Hoggan. “I still think they’re the favorite, and I think if you ask them, they feel like the favorite.
“Having two cracks to win it in front of the fans at home was nice,” he continued. “But it doesn’t matter. We still have a chance to win this thing on the road. We won here before, and we’ll come prepared.”
After a combined 99 regular season and playoff games, the Griffins know that a pair of losses at home are just one more bump in the roller-coaster ride of the postseason. They’re hoping that a refreshing day away from the rink on Sunday is the remedy they need to take Game 6, in what will be the latest (June 18) an AHL game has ever been played.
“The playoffs are so much like the NHL season, it’s not even funny,” said Blashill. “You’re playing every few days, and you have to find opportunities to re-energize. We had a great opportunity yesterday to do that. It was a beautiful day in Grand Rapids. The guys who are fathers had a chance to be fathers. We’re all re-energized and looking forward to the opportunity we have tomorrow.”
“It’s nice to have the day off and clear your head,” Hoggan said. “We put ourselves in a position to win at home, and coming into the series, that didn’t seem too likely. We’ll use that to our advantage. Houston pushed us to the brink, Game 6 of the third period against Toronto could have gone either way, and we had the same against Oklahoma City. We’re battle-tested, and we’ve played some tough teams.”
In fact, in each of the Griffins’ first three series they lost at least one potential elimination game before bouncing back and advancing. Facing that kind adversity throughout the playoffs prepared them for a return trip to Syracuse.
“Obviously, we want to be a little better at closing out a series,” said defenseman Nathan Paetsch. “That hasn’t been our forte all throughout the playoffs. But we feel confident, and we know what this group can do.”
“Even in the games we lost, we were playing hard,” said Hoggan, evidenced by the 42 shots the team peppered on the Syracuse net in Game 5. “We need to repeat our effort.”
Having had success on the road all season – especially in the series’ first two games in Syracuse – is something the Griffins can lean on. They tied for sixth in the regular season with 45 points on the road, including an early-season six-game road winning streak that pushed the team to the top of the division after a slow start.
“We’ve gone on the road and won a lot of big games in some big moments,” said Blashill. “We’ve been a good road team all year. Our guys have a good approach. They don’t get too rattled in big situations, and that always helps on the road.”
“We know it’s going to be difficult playing here,” said Paetsch. “But we’re comfortable on the road. Sometimes we can get a little too complicated with our game at home. Hopefully, we can come in here, keep it simple and pull out a victory.”
Conversely, the Griffins knew that the Crunch were more than capable of pushing the series back to the Onondaga County War Memorial. The Crunch were the second-best team on the road during the season, and their Game 3 loss to the Griffins was their only blemish away from home during the postseason.
Add that to the fact that Syracuse was 11-1 in the playoffs entering this series, boasting a core group of players who won the Calder Cup with Norfolk last season. Those 10 players won 17 straight playoff games and swept four consecutive series before dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Griffins know that they’re up against a team worthy of the hype.
“We’re a confident team,” said Blashill. “We have a lot of respect for our opponent all the time, but we’re confident in ourselves as well. I felt that way going into the series, and I still feel that way now. We knew Syracuse was a really good hockey team, and we maintain a lot of respect for them. We believe in our own ability as well.”
“This is a great building and a great atmosphere,” said Paetsch, who played for Syracuse in 2010-11 and skated against the Crunch many times as a member of in-state rival Rochester from 2004-06 and briefly in 2010. “We’ve had success in this rink, and I think the guys like playing here. Hopefully, we can feed off that atmosphere.”
In 27 years of professional hockey in Grand Rapids, no team has been able to claim a championship. The Griffins know that the best way to rebound from the back-to-back losses is not with sweeping changes, but just playing the same brand of hockey that got them to the Calder Cup Finals.
“It’s the same mindset whether we’re at home or on the road,” Hoggan said. “We need to stick to what we consistently do best, getting shots to the net, skating hard and playing sound defense.”
“I don’t think that was nearly as difficult as being up 3-1 in Game 6 against Oklahoma City with barely any time left and losing,” said Paetsch. “We were able to overcome that, and we’ll be able to overcome this. We have good character in this group, and we’re ready for any challenge.”