By Kyle Kujawa –
After signing with the Grand Rapids Griffins following a successful training camp tryout, Jeff Hoggan had a quote during an interview that particularly stuck out.
“I might not be able to ‘outskill’ a lot of these guys”, he said, “but I can show them that I come to the rink hard and work hard every day.”
It was an observation that became apparent throughout the course of the season, but it was most easily seen in the second half of the season. The Griffins had built a comfortable division lead throughout the regular season and were in no danger of missing the playoffs. But a late season losing streak delayed the team’s postseason berth and shrunk a once double-digit division lead to just three points by the end of the year.
“I don’t think anybody doubted we were going to make it,” said Hoggan. “We saw what we had, and how we were playing early on. It was an expectation that we would be prepared to get in there and do some damage.”
Once the NHL lockout ended, like every team, the Griffins were dealt curveballs by their parent club. Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Tomas Tatar and Brian Lashoff were among those who missed extended time during stints with Detroit, and the Griffins often needed players to step up for them offensively.
“It says a lot about the group we have,” Hoggan said. “We’ve had guys go up, guys come down, and the chemistry of this unit hasn’t changed. We’ve been able to move parts around and everyone has found a way to contribute and be part of what we’re doing here.”
The team didn’t have to look any further than its captain to see an example of a player who stepped up when called on. Prior to the start of the NHL season (Jan. 19), Hoggan was on pace for a decent year offensively – 14 points (5-9—14) in 38 games. In the team’s final 38 games, Hoggan rattled off 31 points (15-16—31) and ended up finishing fourth on the team in scoring.
“Believe me, if you can get points you need to take them,” he said. “I found some chemistry playing with [Luke] Glendening and [Jan] Mursak, with their great speed. We’re really jelling right now.
“For me, it’s the end result and the success of the team that matters. Being able to contribute is a bonus, but it doesn’t make a difference to me how many points I get,” he continued.
Grand Rapids carried a four-game losing streak through a late-season homestand and into the final weekend of the season. But the work the team put in throughout the season paid off, as they clinched a playoff berth in the second-to-last week of the season, giving the team a chance to rest some players in the final week of the regular season.
But with Milwaukee and Rockford nipping at their heels for the Midwest Division crown, it was Hoggan who came up big with two assists in a 3-1 win over Peoria to seal the division title, and he tallied two goals during a 3-1 victory in the season finale over Chicago to help the team enter the playoffs on a winning note.
“I believe in momentum, for sure,” said Hoggan. “You don’t just flip a switch. We want to be playing at a high level. Each guy has to take ownership of his game, really look in the mirror and say, ‘hey, I’m not really going as hard as I can be.’ Every guy needs to step it up, and know that all of these games matter.
“We want to be part of hanging a banner here. We want to leave a mark.”
The first-round pairing puts Hoggan in a peculiar spot, as the Griffins will meet the Houston Aeros. The only other time the teams met – the 2003 Western Conference Finals – Hoggan was a first-year pro with the Aeros. Down 3-1 in the series, the Griffins became the third team in AHL history to win consecutive overtime games when facing elimination to force a Game 7 at home, but Houston ultimately prevailed, handing the Griffins a heart-breaking loss and eventually winning the Calder Cup.
Now residing in the home team’s locker room, Hoggan will lean on his championship experience as he looks to help his current team extract revenge on his old one.
“We’re going to talk about it before the playoffs for sure,” he said. “One thing is, you can’t get frustrated. Things are going to go wrong, but you’ve got to bounce back. You’ve got to be poised, and you’ve got to be resilient. It’s a lot of little things that will be a huge part of our mindset going into the playoffs.”
While Hoggan is the first to say the team would have liked to have put together more wins in the final stretch of the regular season, he likes the makeup of the club. It was a team that responded all season to the adversity it faced, ranging from early season struggled that saw it on the bottom of the Western Conference (followed up by an eight-game winning streak) to the various NHL call-ups, including Nyquist, who was leading the AHL in scoring at the time of his recall and could have been an MVP candidate.
“It’s just that feeling,” Hoggan said of the team’s postseason chances. “You know guys are going to battle for one another. We know we have a chance to do this, and that’s all you ask for. There are so many variables that you can’t control, but you can control your effort and your mindset. That’s what we have to focus on right now.”