By Matt Gajtka –
GRAND RAPIDS – The red light went on and the goal horn sounded, sending the sellout crowd at Van Andel Arena into delirium.
There was only one problem: the puck never went in. The celebration will have to wait.
The visiting Syracuse Crunch survived a late close call to squeeze past the Grand Rapids Griffins 3-2 in Game 4 of the Calder Cup Final on Friday night, extending the AHL championship series for at least another 24 hours.
The Griffins, who still lead the best-of-seven series three games to one, thought they had tied the game on a wild scramble in front of the Crunch net with 17.4 seconds to go in the third period.
With the puck pinned against Syracuse goalie Cedrick Desjardins’ pads, the goal judge erroneously activated the red light. The puck skidded to the end boards, casting doubt on the decision, although most of 10,834 in attendance were more than willing to take the bait.
A brief video review confirmed what the players already knew: no goal.
“I wasn’t sure why the whistle blew,” Griffins coach Jeff Blashill said. “[The players] came over and told me it wasn’t a goal, so I was just wondering why the play stopped.”
The confusion partially obscured an up-and-down third period that somehow didn’t produce a goal. The Griffins, looking to clinch the first title in Grand Rapids pro hockey history, had a power play in the waning moments but couldn’t convert to send the game to overtime.
That wasted opportunity was emblematic of the night for the home team, which finished 0 for 6 on the power play. The biggest of the Griffins’ misfires came midway through the first, when they led 2-1 and had the Crunch on their heels.
“Our power play wasn’t good enough today,” said forward Joakim Andersson, who put the Griffins on top 3 1/2 minutes into the game. Jan Mursak scored the other Grand Rapids goal, his 11th of the playoffs.
“We did a lot of good things, but we didn’t capitalize on our chances.”
Boosted by two more successful penalty kills in the second period, Syracuse got goals from Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik four minutes apart late in the middle frame to jump ahead for good. The Crunch, whose only blown lead of their 12-4 postseason run came in Wednesday’s 4-2 loss in Game 3, would not surrender the edge on this night.
“In the first half of the game, [the Griffins] were doing a lot of the same things they had been in the first three,” Crunch coach Rob Zettler said. “We clogged up the neutral zone a lot better in the second half of the game. We were essentially rolling three lines and our guys battled hard to the end.”
Desjardins made 26 saves, the most significant of which was on Riley Sheahan’s forehand chance with the score tied 2-2 in the second. The Griffins forward found himself all alone in front of the net, but Desjardins kicked it away.
“[Desjardins] bailed us out early on when they had some great chances,” Zettler said. “They walked in alone a couple times and he kept us in it. I thought we was good last game, too.”
Griffins goalie Petr Mrazek (21 saves) was just as strong, if not more so. The 21-year-old Czech Republic native saved his best efforts for the final five minutes, when the Crunch had three glorious shorthanded opportunities to put the game away. Mrazek denied all three, giving Grand Rapids a final few cracks at it.
Now, instead of scheduling the championship parade, the Griffins will try once more to lift the Calder Cup in the Calder City at 7 p.m. Saturday in Game 5.
“I thought it was a really good game between two really good teams,” Blashill said. “I think we can execute better and translate some of our opportunities into goals. We’re not going to change the way we play. We just need to be a little bit better.”
There will be a bit of suspense before Game 5, as the AHL league office has to make a decision on whether to suspend Griffins star Gustav Nyquist for a major spearing penalty he took against Panik late in the second. Blashill disagreed with the call, as did most of those in attendance.
Van Andel Arena was filled beyond capacity for the potential history-making evening, and the largest hockey crowd in Grand Rapids history got something to cheer about right away as Mrazek made a series of lunging saves to hold Syracuse off the board on an early power play.
The buzz in the building reached new heights less than a minute after the successful penalty kill, when the Griffins’ Chad Billins hit Andersson with a lead pass behind the unaware Crunch defense. Andersson dashed in and gunned a snap shot past Desjardins to break the ice at 3:37.
“There were a lot of emotions early,” Andersson said. “Of course there are going to be more nerves when you have a chance [to win a championship].”
Syracuse had a quick answer, tying the score 87 seconds later. Brett Connolly took advantage of an ill-timed pinch by Griffins defenseman Brian Lashoff, poking the puck into the neutral zone and beating Mrazek between the legs on a breakaway to quiet the din.
Mrazek bounced back at the midway point of the frame, denying Panik from the doorstep with a kick save. Grand Rapids built on that energy later in the same shift, jumping ahead 2-1 when Hoggan’s wrister appeared to deflect off Mursak in front of the Syracuse net before skidding under Desjardins.
The Griffins were handed a golden chance to make it a two-goal lead when the Crunch’s Mark Barberio and Jean-Phillipe Cote took back-to-back penalties, giving the home side a 59-second two-man advantage. But despite several good looks at the net, Grand Rapids couldn’t poke a third puck through Desjardins, who appeared to gain strength as the period continued.
“Our zone entries [on the power play] weren’t good enough,” Blashill said. “We spent too much time breaking out. Once we were in the zone, I thought we could’ve shot more, especially on the 5 on 3.”
The second period was about missed opportunities early on, with each side squandering a pair of power plays in the opening 14 minutes of the frame. After killing two Syracuse advantages, Grand Rapids earned the next two.
With an opening to net a key insurance goal, the Griffins buzzed the cage but came up empty. Then, less than 30 seconds after Czech Crunch defenseman Andrej Sustr escaped the penalty box, fellow countryman Palat rammed a slap shot over Mrazek’s glove from the left wing, tying the game at 2 with 5:59 left in the period.
Syracuse appeared to get a lift from the turn of events, possessing the puck in the Grand Rapids end for the majority of the next five minutes. The pressure boiled over when Panik steered an accurate feed from blueliner Barberio into the left side of the Griffins net, putting the Crunch on top for the first time at 16:52.
The hole got deeper for Grand Rapids in the final minute before intermission, as Nyquist was issued a major penalty and a game misconduct for spearing Panik as the two came together in front of the bench area.
As a result, Syracuse carried 4:39 of power-play time into the third. Another penalty on Sustr neutralized part of that, setting up a white-knuckle final 15 minutes.
But the Crunch survived, keeping hopes alive for the second AHL title in Syracuse history. The Syracuse Stars claimed the first Calder Cup tournament in 1937, culminating the league’s first season.
The Griffins, part of the AHL for the past 12 seasons, had never reached the final round until beating Oklahoma City last week for the Western Conference crown.
Notes: The Griffins’ previous record for attendance at Van Andel Arena had been 10,102, set in Wednesday’s Game 3…Palat leads Syracuse with 22 points (6g, 16a) in the playoffs…Neither team has scored a power-play goal since Game 2. The Crunch were 0 for 5 in Game 4…Only three teams have rallied from a 3-0 deficit in an AHL series and won. It has never happened in the Calder Cup Finals…Griffins leading playoff scorer Tomas Tatar (18 points) was held off the scoresheet.