GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – In an early-season battle of AHL powers on Saturday, the Grand Rapids Griffins scored four goals in the game’s first 8:55 en route to a 6-4 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs at Van Andel Arena. The 13th-straight home-opening sellout crowd of 10,834 saw the Griffins improve to 3-0-1-0 under new coach Curt Fraser, marking the third-best start in team history and giving them the top winning percentage (0.875) in the Western Conference.
The Griffins will continue their three-game home stand on Sunday when they host the Norfolk Admirals at 4 p.m.
Grand Rapids needed just 1:42 to net its first home-ice goal of the campaign. From the right boards, Mattias Ritola sent a long cross-ice pass to Garrett Stafford, who ripped a shot past Marc Denis from the left circle.
Goal number two came courtesy of a power play less than two minutes later, when Muskegon native Justin Abdelkader set up in front of the Hamilton cage and redirected Jonathan Ericsson’s low shot from the left point at the 3:19 mark. The onslaught continued at 4:51 when Ritola finished off a 2-on-1 by blasting Cory Emmerton’s pass over Denis’ shoulder from the slot, making it 3-0 and sending Denis and his four saves to an early shower in favor of Cedrick Desjardins.
The change did the visitors little good at first, as Ritola soon pushed the lead to four. Sprung on a breakaway off an Emmerton pass, Ritola sped in and flipped the puck over Desjardins for his second goal of the game at 8:55.
The Bulldogs finally stopped the bleeding and nearly got on the board as the buzzer mercifully sounded to end the first period, but a questionable goal was waved off by referee Shaun Davis. The four first-period goals were the most for the Griffins in a home opener since Oct. 18, 2003, when they scored four against Houston in the opening 18:21 to lead 4-0 after 20 minutes in an eventual 4-2 win.
Undaunted by the near-miss, Hamilton got back into the game with a pair of goals early in the second. Ryan Russell one-timed a shot past Jimmy Howard from close quarters at 2:19, and Shawn Belle tallied shorthanded at 5:56.
Presented with 43 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage midway through the frame, the Bulldogs squandered their opportunity to get closer, a failure they would regret when the Griffins pushed their lead to 5-2 at the 14:33 mark. Darren Helm spun around in the slot and put a shot on net that Desjardins turned aside, but Ville Leino converted the rebound from the right side for his third goal of the campaign.
Hamilton avenged that goal just 1:21 into the third when Matt D’Agostini grabbed a turnover at the left boards, skated in and ripped a laser over Howard’s glove from the circle. D’Agostini scored again during a 4-on-4 with 4:12 left to make things interesting, but Leino tallied his second into a vacated net from center ice with 11.4 tickets left for the final margin.
Howard improved to 2-0 on the season thanks to 20 saves, while Desjardins suffered the hard-luck loss despite 17 stops.