What a gut-punch. Playoff losses come and playoff losses go, but the Grand Rapids Griffins’ season-ending loss to the Manitoba Moose was an incredibly difficult one to swallow.
As Griffins coach Todd Nelson suggested a couple of games ago, best-of-five-game series have a way of getting away from you, and on a night that the Griffins surrendered 5 goals, the players agreed that the 2-1 goal, scored by Cameron Schilling at 19:46 of the 2nd period, was the dagger.
After the game, I don’t know if the fact that the Griffins would be unable to defend their Calder Cup championship had sunk in. It was still a playoff loss against a grown-to-be-hated opponent in the pesky Moose (led by, of all people, Brendan Lemieux in this game), but I don’t think it’ll hit the players until Tuesday, if not Wednesday’s exit meetings with the team’s coaches and management.
The Griffins did their best to suggest that the injuries to Matt Lorito, Dominic Turgeon, Axel Holmstrom and the suspension to Eric Tangradi did not harm them, and players like Evgeny Svechnikov, who were obviously playing hurt, made no attempts to suggest that physical issues unaccounted for were to blame for their performances.
But the players were talking about coach Todd Nelson like a coach who deserves better than to return to the AHL. The players were praising each other’s pluck, talking about futures of prospects not yet far upon their professional journeys, looking a little longingly at the locker room, knowing already that next year’s team might not include them.
As Jared Coreau said, there are athletes who are lucky enough to spend their entire careers with one team, and there are athletes who welcome new starts elsewhere, and you have to be prepared for both eventualities.
Next year’s Griffins team will look different, will look a lot younger, it has to despite the contracts that the Red Wings have weaved with Grand Rapids’ defensemen, because there’s a new crop coming, and some of the old guard needs to get out of the way.
It’s just disappointing to be sitting up here in press row at nearly 1 in the morning, knowing that I’m not going to be driving back to Grand Rapids for a good while. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that this is a real hockey town, and that, come playoff time, they expect the kind of success that Hockeytown has put on pause due to a slight detour into roster re-pavement, turned a full freeway reconstruction.
I try to hide my bias as best I can, but you end up rooting for the people and the players, and you want the rink to be full, you want the crowd to be lively, you want that stupid song with the whistling and the screaming (whatever that “Big Enough” song is about) playing during the second intermission.
It’s fun to go to the rink and get in for free to watch people like Filip Hronek make massive strides forward as a youngster, to watch the synergy of old teammates like Ben Street and Matthew Ford, to watch plucky Joe Hicketts hammer opponents with the same veracity as a Dylan McIlrath who’s 3/4 of a foot taller than Hicketts, it’s enthusing to see Jared Coreau assuage a rough stint in Detroit with strong individual play.
And it’s disappointing to watch a team that celebrated with the Calder Cup on the ice last June fall so far short.
Thanks for the ride, Griffins. It’s been a hell of a year.