By Matt Gajtka –
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The Syracuse Crunch had a lot going for them in the Calder Cup Final: back-to-back wins, a rabid home crowd for Tuesday night’s Game 6, 10 players with championship experience and a tie game in the third period.
None of it matters anymore, because the Grand Rapids Griffins have the hardware.
For the first time, a Grand Rapids pro hockey team has won a championship, as the Griffins clinched the American Hockey League crown with a 5-2 triumph over the Crunch at Onondaga County War Memorial Arena.
By winning the best-of-seven Calder Cup Final four games to two, the Griffins delivered in the seventh trip to a title series by a Grand Rapids-based team. The Rockets (three times), Owls (twice) and IHL Griffins all finished one step short of the mountaintop.
“This is so fulfilling,” said team captain Jeff Hoggan amid a raucous celebration on the ice after the final buzzer sounded. “It’s a special group. We were tested throughout the year, but we were confident and persevered. Now we get to share this for a lifetime.”
After taking the top spot in the AHL’s Midwest Division, the Griffins finished the postseason at 15-9, featuring series victories over Houston (five games), Toronto (six) and Oklahoma City (seven) on their way to the final round.
“This has been such an enjoyable journey,” said first-year Griffins coach Jeff Blashill, a Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., native. “Life’s all about moments and I’m really excited for the players. All the games [in this series] were extremely close. We were able to put a couple plays together in the end to win it.”
Grand Rapids took the first three games against Syracuse, including a pair of wins in upstate New York to start the matchup, before the Crunch held off elimination twice at Van Andel Arena to bring the series back east.
“We were a little deflated to have to come back here, because Grand Rapids has been waiting so long for this,” said Hoggan, who also won an AHL title with Houston in 2003. “It would’ve been special to win at home, but in the end, people aren’t going to look back and wonder where we won it.
“This belongs to the city forever.”
The Crunch, who went 11-1 in emerging from the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket, looked on the verge of forcing a winner-take-all Game 7, which would’ve been Thursday night. Defenseman Andrej Sustr connected with a long-range goal to tie the game 2-2 early in Tuesday’s third period, and Syracuse appeared poised to go ahead.
However, Grand Rapids blueliner Brennan Evans scored just the 16th goal of his 10-year pro career midway through the final frame, restoring the visitors’ advantage. Mitch Callahan set Evans up at the top of the left circle, giving the 31-year-old first-year Griffin enough time to rattle a slap shot off the body of Crunch goalie Cedrick Desjardins.
From there, 21-year-old Griffins rookie goalie Petr Mrazek showed how much he’s grown by standing up to fierce Crunch pressure. The 6-foot-1 Czech, who started the year in the ECHL with Toledo before quickly ascending Detroit’s organizational depth chart, used his athleticism and poise to squelch multiple late scrambles around his crease.
“Petr’s been great all season with the game on the line,” said Blashill of Mrazek, who finished with 24 saves. “He’s been a huge part of our success.”
With the help of several Griffins diving to block shots and clear pucks, Mrazek preserved the 3-2 lead until Gustav Nyquist drew a slashing penalty to put Grand Rapids on a much-needed power play with 2:13 to play.
The Griffins played keep-away for much of the remaining time, eventually breaking free for empty-net goals by Tomas Tatar and Joakim Andersson in the final minute. With the seconds ticking down, the joyous Grand Rapids players, coaches and support staff hollered loud enough for all 6,375 fans in the arena to hear, then spilled on the ice for a pulsating postgame celebration.
Tatar finished the night with two goals, including a power-play marker in the second that put the Griffins up 2-1. The 23-year-old Slovakian winger was awarded the playoff MVP trophy for compiling 16 goals and five assists in 24 postseason games.
“Everybody played their role on the team this year,” said Tatar, Detroit’s second-round draft pick in 2009. “We have a great coaching staff and a great organization. I’m glad I could help do this.”
Nyquist, 23, finished an abbreviated playoff run with a two-assist night, giving him seven points (two goals) in 10 playoff games. He and fellow Swedish forward Andersson (eight points) joined the Griffins’ Calder Cup chase in the Western Conference final after Detroit was eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Callahan, one of 13 Griffins to skate in all 24 postseason contests, netted the Griffins’ first goal in addition to his assist on Evans’ Cup-winner. Landon Ferraro earned two helpers to give him 16 playoff points.
Richard Panik scored for Syracuse, which featured 10 players who won the Calder Cup with Norfolk last spring. Panik collected a goal in each of the last five games of the series vs. Grand Rapids. Desjardins concluded his playoff run with a 20-save performance.
Much like the high-energy crowd that greeted the teams when the series shifted to Grand Rapids in Games 3, 4 and 5, the Syracuse faithful were in full throat from the drop of the puck Tuesday, loudly cheering every hit, shot and opportunity generated by the Crunch.
The action moved back-and-forth quickly from the start, aided by the smaller-than-standard neutral zone in the cramped 62-year-old auditorium. The Griffins enjoyed the better looks at the net in the early going, with Luke Glendening, Andersson and Riley Sheahan each misfiring on chances to give the visitors the opening goal.
Instead, the Crunch delivered the first tally for the second straight game, and once again it was off the stick of the Slovakian-born Panik. The 2009 second-round NHL draft pick netted his fifth goal in five games when he shoveled in the rebound of Matt Taormina’s drive with 2:45 left in the first.
Early in the second, Grand Rapids’ Tomas Jurco dragged a perfect set-up from Francis Pare just wide of the Syracuse net. Jurco slammed his stick against the boards in frustration, but the play signaled the start of a Griffins push that culminated in the tying goal.
On the next shift, Ferraro tossed a pass into the middle of the Crunch zone, where it settled in the skates of Syracuse defenseman Mark Barberio. Callahan fished it out and snapped a rising shot over Desjardins’ glove all in one motion, stunningly knotting the game at 2:23.
Griffins blueliner Nathan Paetsch nearly put the visitors on top soon after, but his right-circle wrister clanked off the underside of the crossbar and stayed out. The Crunch’s Palat drilled the iron moments later during a Syracuse power play, keeping it 1-1 until defenseman Radko Gudas, in his first game back from injury, took his second penalty of the game.
On the resulting Grand Rapids advantage, Ferraro expertly spun a crossrink feed to the right circle for Nyquist, who quickly unleashed a low shot. Desjardins made the kick save, only to have Tatar punch it in from the doorstep with 7:19 left in the period.
The Griffins’ first lead since early in Game 4 lasted until the second intermission, although a high-sticking double-minor against Paetsch in the final minute gave the Crunch 3 1/2 minutes of power-play time to start the third.
A tripping penalty neutralized part of the Syracuse advantage, but the Crunch possessed the puck well during the ensuing stretch of 4-on-4 play. Their edge carried over until the 6-foot-8 Sustr hammered a 60-foot slapper through traffic and past Mrazek with 14:46 remaining.
But the Griffins briskly regained their equilibrium, gradually pushing back until Callahan ducked behind the Crunch net and found Evans at the left point for the biggest goal in Grand Rapids hockey history.
Like most of his players, Blashill was reflective of what the championship moment meant to West Michigan and when he knew the 2012-13 Griffins could be something special.
“I knew right from the start we had a lot of character on this team,” said Blashill, the former Ferris State goalie whose remarkable coaching career includes time as a Red Wings assistant, a head coaching spot at Western Michigan University and a previous championship in the USHL with the Indiana Ice.
“I’m happy for the ownership of this team, all the employees who’ve put in so much work over a long period of time. It’s been unreal to have the opportunity to coach some great talent in a great city like Grand Rapids.”