The Grand Rapids Griffins attempted to jump out to an all-important 2-1 series lead in the team’s best-of-5 playoff series against the Manitoba Moose.
Grand Rapids and Manitoba were tied 1-1 going into a game in which Colin Campbell (suspension) and Axel Holmstrom (injury) would not play, further depleting the Griffins’ forwards, which were already challenged by the injuries to Matt Lorito and Dominic Turgeon.
I took in this game from the press box, and the Grand Rapids Griffins struggled their way to a 6-3 defeat that was closer than it looked, in no small part because the Griffins out-shot the Moose 48-25. Grand Rapids worked its tail off with only 11 healthy forwards and 7 defensemen, but Tom McCollum got pulled after giving up 3 goals on 11 shots, Jared Coreau was only a little bit better, and Moose goalie Eric Comrie stopped far too many shots with the logo on his chest.
Grand Rapids’ quest to defend its Calder Cup title MUST include a win over the Moose on Thursday night (7 PM on ESPN 96.1 and the AHL Live); if it doesn’t, this best-of-three series will go Manitoba’s way.
1st period: The Griffins dressed Mike Borkowski as their second-line center and Luke Esposito filled in as the Griffins’ third-line centers, and both of those players were Toledo Walleye when the Griffins were at full strength.
Grand Rapids employed a modified Red Wings system of play, with more emphasis on chipping and chasing to get in on a more grinding forecheck. Grand Rapids doesn’t make cutesy plays with the puck at center ice in order to regroup–they go hard all the time.
That’s necessary for both the AHL’s skill level and/or chaotic nature as well as the personnel that the Griffins are employing.
Dennis Cholowski found himself on the “fourth defensive pair,” mainly with Robbie Russo…
And he was NOT out on the ice when the Moose capitalized on a Griffins turnover at the blueline, with Mike Sgarbossa skating in and getting a shot off McCollum that was deposited in the back of an un-tended net by Chase De Leo, sans Griffins defender nearby.
Manitoba made it 1-0 on a Sgarbossa from De Leo at 4:16 of the 1st.
Early on, the Griffins and Moose were fairly even in terms of puck possession, but the Griffins were unable to generate many scoring chances.
A wave at the puck by Zach Nastasiuk at the side of the net was the best the Griffins could do over the first six minutes of play.
In terms of several shifts’ worth of Dennis Cholowski, who was used sparingly, Dennis’ smoothness with the puck and ability to make sharp passes in transition were evident.
The line of Eric Tangradi, Ben Street and Matt Puempel was the most explosive for Grand Rapids, with the trio generating a 2-on-1 that Eric Comrie stifled and a wrap-back on the forecheck that Tangradi nearly deposited in the net.
For the record, NINE members of the Red Wings’ front office either stood or sat in the relatively empty area of the rink on its west side, either standing or sitting at the spare desks provided for the Wings. It’s hard to see who’s who from so far away, but Ken Holland was surely in attendance, as was Jimmy Devellano.
In all honesty, the Griffins had a really good start–they just got scored on. Only 7 minutes into the 1st, Grand Rapids was out-shooting Manitoba 11-3, and Grand Rapids spent the vast majority of its time in the Manitoba zone…
But the Griffins were also nailed for a penalty as Ben Street got tagged for interference at 7:10, tugging down a Manitoba defenseman.
On the PK, Turner Elson and Mike Borkowski were the first forward unit, with the Griffins’ top defensive pairing of Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath on defense; Matt Ford and Corey Elkins hopped over the boards soon after to relieve their forward counterparts…
And they watched the Moose score on a one-timer to make it 2-0. Manitoba attained possession and control in the Griffins’ zone, Sami Niku worked the puck to Nic Petan for a one-timer, and Petan shot where McCollum wasn’t, making it 2-0 at 8:25.
Grand Rapids attempted to respond, and Filip Hronek got into things physically, shoving a Moose player fairly strongly behind the Griffins’ goal without taking a penalty. Hronek isn’t big at all, but he’s got a real edge to him.
After the power play, Manitoba had a real edge in terms of possession and territorial play, backing the Griffins into their own end with ease.
McCollum was active outside his crease, and with the Griffins possessing an abundance of puck-moving defensemen, the Griffins, when they could get the puck out of the zone, were able to chug up the gut and get into the Moose zone, but Manitoba had set up a 1-4 trap, and the Griffins weren’t quite able to penetrate the defense to get shots on Comrie. The shot clock stayed on 11 for the Griffins for a good five minutes.
Svechnikov subbed on the Tangradi-Esposito pairing, and the trio were unable to generate a shot on a prime scoring chance against Comrie…
Shine, Esposito and Elkins did a better job of grinding the puck out down low, and a Joe Hicketts pinch at least resulted in a shot on the side of the net, but Manitoba was willing to give up possession and control as long as they kept their slot clear–and they did a fantastic job of keeping their slot clear.
Meanwhile, the Griffins looked downright vulnerable in their own zone, and a TREMENDOUS sprawling save by Tom McCollum bailed out Dennis Cholowski when the Griffins rookie got lost in his coverage.
Borkowski, Elkins and Ford crashed the net so hard that they sent Moose defenders splayed on the ice and Comrie’s stick into the right corner, but as the 15-minute mark approached, Grand Rapids was still stuck on 11 shots.
Manitoba looked faster, deeper, sharper and more efficient…
And then things got INTERESTING as Dan Renouf engaged in a spirited bout with JC Lipon, getting the decision by a fair margin as both players were escorted to their respective locker rooms at 15:14 (i.e. with less than 5 minutes remaining in the 1st).
Lipon got an extra 2 minutes for interference…
And the Griffins set up on the power play, with Ford, Svechnikov, Tangradi, Street and Hronek working the puck around the perimeter…
And the Griffins scored! Ben Street and Matt Ford cleaned up the garbage off a Matt Puempel shot, mashing and mucking the puck into the net behind Comrie to get the Griffins back in the game at 15:28.
And the Griffins got in scraps after the goal–with Filp Hronek agreeing to throw ’em with Michael Spacek, who needed two linesmen to protect him from Hronek’s blows! Hronek did a good job of punching over and under the linesman to land a couple of pops.
Matt Ford got into a wrestling match, Eric Tangradi held Cameron Schilling away from a scrap, and Matt Puempel and Brody Sutter had a chat…
When all was said and done, players who didn’t take part in the fight had to sort out the sticks, gloves and helmets on the ice, and again, Manitoba took an additional penalty.
Michael Spacek got 5, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct, and Peter Stoykewych got 5 and 10, Patrice Cormier got 2 for cross-checking and 10, while Grand Rapids’ Filip Hronek and Matt Ford got 10-minute misconducts in addition to Hronek’s 5-minute major for fighting, all at 15:28.
Long story short, Grand Rapids went on the power play, and immediately attacked Comrie, who stood tall.
Manitoba got away with their fair share of interference and clutching and grabbing during the power play, but, to be fair, Grand Rapids’ power play was fairly poor after the initial rush.
Not much happened in the way of “events,” unless you want me to write about checking and puck carriers not going anywhere.
Ultimately, McCollum had to make a good stop and Grand Rapids tried to sort out its forecheck as expletives flowed like water between the benches.
Worse, Eric Tangradi got called for an adventurous hold with 57.5 remaining in the 1st, and Manitoba headed to the power play.
Street, Elson, McIlrath and Lashoff set up on the PK, and they shepherded the Griffins to the first intermission.
At the end of the 1st period, the shots were 14-10 Grand Rapids, and the score was 2-1 Manitoba.
Intermission thoughts: I’m not going to have much of an impression of Dennis Cholowski outside what I’ve seen of him before–smooth and skilled, good outlet pass, almost AHL-ready, but needs a good summer, etc.–until I see him more. The player I can discuss at more length is Filip Hronek, who looked excellent in the first period, playing at least AHL hockey, if not better-than-AHL-level-hockey. Hronek’s calm and poised, he’s sharp with and without the puck, his mobility is excellent, his vision is superb and his shooting and passing selection are multi-dimensional. He might be 170 pounds, soaking wet, and he doesn’t give up an inch or ounce to anyone.
2nd period: The Griffins hit the ice at 8:09 PM, still on the PK for 1:03, and Hronek, Ford, Tangradi and Renouf were all in the penalty box, 4 guys with only 3 seats.
Elkins, Elson, Lashoff and McGrath started the period as the Griffins’ PK’ers, and Manitoba tried to work the seam pass that the Red Wings have found exploited by their opponents, trying to go side-to-side down low.
As Hicketts and Lashoff hopped over the boards, the Griffins killed off almost the entire penalty…
But Manitoba made it 3-1 as the forwards got scrambled and Brendan Lemieux went to the front of the net, screening McCollum as Sami Niku jabbed home a snapper, scoring at 1:05 of the 2nd period. Nic Petan and X had the assists.
Coach Nelson made a risky move, choosing to place Jared Coreau into the net while the Griffins still had life. McCollum gave up 3 goals on 11 shots against.
Did the move register?
YES, and FAST.
Grand Rapids made it 3-2 in a hurry, with an angry Eric Tangradi, who got tagged for an intentional offside on the previous shift, scoring off a slick pass from Matt Puempel and Ben Street to make it 3-2 at 1:43.
The Moose were in for a battle, and they responded as a Winnipeg Jets affiliate would: they tried to start a fight with Evgeny Svechnikov, which didn’t work.
Grand Rapids continued to attack Comrie, but the Moose were sharp…
And Manitoba made it 4-2 quickly. With his defensemen again letting the Moose get to the slot, Skyler McKenzie tapped home a redirect in front of the Griffins’ net at 2:26. I don’t think you really care about the assists, so I won’t list them.
The Griffins’ inability or unwillingness to stifle slot passes was bad news in a big way.
It was weird, because you’d think that the Griffins’ lack of depth at forward would damn them, and instead, it was simple shit–covering up slot passes, keeping your goalie’s eyes free of opposing players’ rear ends, clearing rebounds, simple shit–that was killing the Griffins.
Manitoba is THE AHL’s best road team, of course, I did not forget that, but they weren’t doing anything otherworldly.
And as I wrote that, the Griffins made it 4-3. Zach Nastasiuk made sure that Corey Elkins’ gorgeous deke and dangle move, which beat Comrie but didn’t cross the goal line, did just that at 4:49 of the 2nd period. Dylan McIlrath had the other assist.
With Grand Rapids leading 21-12 in shots, it was 4-3, and the Griffins had hope again.
Manitoba pushed back damn hard, both physically and on the puck, and the whistles let some things go that wouldn’t have gone by the wayside in the first period, but the Griffins hung in there, and looked for the opportunity to strike a little more safely.
You can score without taking too much risk, and against a team like Manitoba, which is dynamite on the counter-attack and rush, you’ve got to minimize risk, especially when it’s a one-goal game.
Dan Renouf NEARLY connected on a wraparound shot…The Griffins gave up a 3-on-1…and Grand Rapids was not scored upon, and instead, Street, Shine and Street worked with Puempel to jab puck after puck near Comrie, who made miraculous stops.
At the “TV timeout” at 8:05, Grand Rapids was out-shooting Manitoba 23-12.
Cholowski got a rare shift around the game’s halfway mark, and he made a good forward pass, patrolled the blueline with poise, and steered a Moose forward away from the puck while working with Robbie Russo, but having great strength at the WHL level and having great strength at the AHL level are two things, and he’s going to have to work on his core.
The Griffins seemed to hit a bit of a rut energy and depth-wise halfway through the game, and that benefited the Moose greatly.
Grand Rapids was still attacking, but the longer the game went without special teams play, the more the Griffins had to roll 11 forwards instead of 12–and roll regular Toledo Walleye and/or “healthy scratch” players in Luke Esposito, Mike Borkowski, Zach Nastasiuk and Dominik Shine–so the miles were piling up for the Griffins’ regulars.
As Wings Nation’s Rachel Anderson pointed out, the AHL doesn’t give out any public links to the ice time it keeps for AHL players, and it would have been really interesting to see kind of time guys like Tangradi, Ford and Street were getting.
For lack of a better term, Grand Rapids didn’t have much puck luck, either. The Moose would win the bounces and bobbles–both the ones that the Griffins couldn’t put past Comrie and the one-on-one battles–and that’s taxing mentally and physically.
12:56 into the 2nd, Brendan Lemieux took Filip Hronek off the ice by punching at Hronek, and getting Hronek to try to punch back. Hronek actually got lectured by Matt Ford before he took a seat in the penalty box to try and keep him calm. Both went for unsportsmanlike conduct.
So Grand Rapids headed into 4-on-4 play with 7:04 left in the 2nd, and the Moose’s greater speed at forward afforded them an advantage that Grand Rapids tried to contain with smart checking.
It almost didn’t work, but the Moose hit the post behind Coreau on a 2-on-1 that Joe Hicketts defended as best as he could…
And as the Moose bore down on the Griffins with heavy hits, trying to take a piece of the Grand Rapids forwards, Hronek and Lemieux emerged from the box.
Guess which player stayed out for the following faceoff, and who went to the bench, where he jawed at his coach?
The 2nd period began to wind down with the Griffins at a significant energy disadvantage. They were doing their damnedest to give Coreau good sight lines, and their transition game was OK, but their attack consisted of single, unobstructed and un-pursued shots at Comrie’s belly.
In the final minute-and-a-half of play, the Griffins were at least putting some shots on Comrie, but they weren’t quality chances by any stretch of the imagination.
Shots after 2 were 33-17 Grand Rapids, but the score was 4-3 Manitoba. Grand Rapids out-shot Manitoba 19-7 in the 2nd period alone.
Intermission thoughts: this needs to be said: the regular season is definitely about player development as much as anything for AHL teams, but the playoffs just aren’t the time to give a “kid” ice time unless you feel that he is going to make your team significantly better. The fact that Cholowski got the nod over Saarijarvi for the 7th defenseman’s spot is a credit to his season, limited as his role might be.
So that’s my biggest observation on a night that isn’t over yet–the fact that the young man got ice time and acquitted himself is all a very good sign, but to make a definitive assessment of Cholowski based upon seventh defenseman’s shifts isn’t appropriate.
At least based upon one night’s worth of it. Ask me again tomorrow.
3rd period: The Griffins hit the ice at 9:10 PM, and were one period and one goal away from possibly facing elimination on Thursday night.
That’s the unpleasant part of best-of-five series–they get away from you in a hurry. Two losses and your ass is in a world of hurt.
Against a team like the Moose, who are deep, talented and plain old mean, that’s a scary proposition.
Street, Tangradi, Puempel, Lashoff and McIlrath dug in for the opening faceoff, lost the draw, and battled the Moose dump-in out to center ice, where Puempel pulled up at the blueline and fed McIlrath of all people at the front of the Manitoba goal.
McIlrath’s screen job didn’t go as anticipated, and good back-checking prevented the Moose from getting a 2-on-1 opportunity.
Tangradi was double-shifted early, playing alongside Elson and Svechnikov, and while he may or may not be an NHL’er skating-wise, his presence is certainly felt both physically and skill-wise at the AHL level.
Manitoba tried to bite down on the Griffins physically, and they won a share of physical battles as a result, with Brendan Lemieux racing away from the Griffins’ defense to jab a breakaway opportunity 2:35 into the 3rd.
Thankfully, the Griffins’ defense got to the loose puck before the Moose did, and the net popped off behind Coreau, affording Grand Rapids a change before a faceoff deep in their own zone.
A terrible McIlrath pinch at the blueline resulted in an immediate rush for the Moose, however, and they put the puck off the goalpost behind Coreau again.
At the other end, Comrie was facing beach balls when the Griffins could do a decent job of pushing pucks through the Moose’s layers of bodies, sticks and intentional screens.
Matt Ford, Turner Elson and Mike Borkowski got a really good chance on a cycle-and-reverse fishhook play, but Comrie got lucky…
So at least the Griffins were trying.
Grand Rapids tried to work flip passes through center ice as well, but when Filip Hronek was loosed in the Moose zone, the linesmen made an erroneous offside call (I’m biased, but they were wrong, wrong, wrong).
The Griffins were simply spending a significant amount of energy stifling the Moose’s best, and they weren’t getting far in Manitoba’s zone, at least in terms of generating “zone time” and scoring chances.
6 minutes into the 3rd, Grand Rapids generated some genuine, honest-to-goodness cycling in the Moose’s zone, but as per usual, the shot that was the result of 45 seconds’ worth of cycling was of the easy variety. Filip Hronek tried his best, but Filip slithered a slapper harmlessly into Comrie’s gloves.
As part of his 3rd period adjustments, coach Nelson placed Cholowski with Dan Renouf, and Cholowski’s stick was active as he stifled Moose chances in front, and his pass to Matthew Ford…
Facilitated a lovely tripping call against Moose defender Mike Sgarbossa, who headed off at 6:59.
On the power play:
Hronek actually executed the old Datsyuk Drop pass at the Moose blueline, and it sort of worked. The Griffins entered the zone, got possession and control of the puck, and worked it into the slot, where Tangradi got a hell of a chance to stuff the puck into Comrie, but the Moose defense was able to prevent the puck from getting stuffed into the net…
The second PP unit, which included Cholowski as well as Russo, Svechnikov, Esposito and Hicketts, was as puzzling as the 3-D personnel, and it was not successful.
The Moose did what they would do post-PK–they tried to get Joe Hicketts to fight someone half-a-foot taller than he was. Nothing came of the exchange.
Joe Hicketts has some holes in his game in terms of decision-making, but he is not stupid.
The 10-minute mark passed with Luke Esposito tossed into the Moose’s net on an attempted stuff-in-the-pass lateral play and one of the referees also on the ice in difficulty.
Again, the Moose could move the puck up the ice with little difficulty, while Grand Rapids had a hell of a time working against what was a full 5-men-back sagging trap by the Moose some 11:30 into the 3rd.
When the 10-minute mark passes, I like to think that the clock is officially going against you, and as the Griffins watched it go down to 9, 8, 7, 6…
Their play was a little sloppy, a little tired, and a little less than confident. The Griffins were trying to make plays through multiple Moose sticks instead of skating into play, and you have to let your skates do the work for you when you’re trying to rally from a one-goal deficit late in the 3rd period.
Even a Matt Puempel breakaway involved some fidgeting from the breakaway-pass-maker, Hronek, and Comrie made another belly stop on the play.
The final ice crew timeout took place with 5:18 remaining in the 3rd, and the shots were 44-22 Grand Rapids, but the score remained 4-3 Manitoba.
After the timeout, the Moose won the faceoff and got another shot on Coreau, and the faceoff after that, the Griffins smashed and banged their way through the neutral zone, but could not gain possession of the puck in the offensive zone.
Under 4 minutes remained when the Griffins found their next rushes parlayed away by the Moose, and Grand Rapids got into dangerous territory as they drew in for a faceoff with 3:32 remaining in the 3rd.
Grand Rapids won that draw, cycled down low, and Luke Esposito, Evgeny Svechnikov, Corey Elkins and Filip Hronek worked their asses off to, of course, generate a shot that Eric Comrie stopped on the logo.
Hronek double-shifted with Hicketts as Street, Puempel and Tangradi came out with 3:04 remaining, and they mashed and ground their way into a Tangradi wraparound, a lot of end-zone play, a Hicketts hit that put Joe on his ass as well as the Moose player…
And as the Moose were called for icing with 2:08 remaining, Jared Coreau headed to the bench.
Ford drew in for the faceoff that the Moose won, and Cholowski could not keep the puck in, and with the Griffins committed offensively, Robbie Russo’s dive-and-flail defense did not prevent Chase De Leo from scoring the 5-3 goal at 18:02.
Hronek wasn’t on the ice because he was double-shifted. There really wasn’t much that Cholowski could do–the puck hopped over his stick–and the Griffins just got caught deep.
Grand Rapids pulled Coreau again and had two goals to score in a little over a minute-and-a-half’s worth of regulation play.
It didn’t look good.
Grand Rapids then called timeout as Ford, Street, Tangradi, Puempel, Hronek and Russo lined up for a deep offensive zone faceoff, and assistant coach Ben Simon barked orders and drew up a play on the white board. Hronek stayed the longest at the bench to get a little more white board time, and Ford drew in for the faceoff.
Ford tied up the draw, and Grand Rapids held the puck in, but Manitoba had an easy clear, and Mike Sgarbossa nearly scored an empty-netter while icing the puck with 1:06 remaining.
Street took the draw this time, won it back to the point, and Grand Rapids tried to pile into Comrie, but again, Manitoba cleared the zone with ease, Grand Rapids attacked, and a Moose defender kept one puck out of the net, Tangradi whiffed wide on his one-timer–by about a foot–and the game ended with Brendan Lemieux scoring a 6-3 goal at 19:54.
Shots 48-25 Grand Rapids, score 6-3 Moose. Even with two empty-netters, that’s not good, and the Griffins face elimination on Thursday night…
Oh, did I mention that the game ended with McGrath looking for blood and the Griffins and Moose having to be separated by the refs?
Yeah, that, too.