Quest for the Calder | Finishing Touches

Frk holds the Calder Cup at Rosa Parks Circle

By now, the confetti has settled and the great halls of the Van Andel Arena have fallen silent; void of the hockey fans that graced them only a few days ago. The echos of the crowd chants and whistles have faded into summer. For now, the famous “Freezer on Fulton” will be transformed night after night for concerts and events, but in the hearts of Grand Rapids’ hockey fans, no amount of pop stars and hair-band legends can compare to what took place Tuesday, June 13, 2017.

The road to the Calder Cup is stained with blood, sweat and even a few tears. For some, it may be the only chance they get in their professional careers to win a national championship and to have such an honor placed upon them. For others, it is only a taste of what is to come as their careers go to new heights and their quests lead them to Lord Stanely’s cup. As the final horn sounded Tuesday night, there was a mixture of exhilaration and sadness within me. As I stood there sharing that special moment in my hometown’s history with 11,000 fellow fans, I realized that this would be the last time I would see some of the boys inside the walls of the Van Andel.

I am filled with immense pride to have watched so many young men grow into outstanding athletes and leaders, but that same pride leaves a bitter after-taste. There may come a day very soon, where the ability to watch the smooth skating of Tomas Nosek or the rough and tumble play of MVP Tyler Bertuzzi will disappear from Grand Rapids. We as fans have had the distinct privileged watching these fine players become who they are suppose to be.

The Griffins, like any team hoping to have their chance to hoist the Calder, surmounted incredible obstacles. Overcoming injuries and call-ups during the regular season, Grand Rapids proved to be a team not solely based on one man’s ability. Throughout the playoffs, with the help of their now legendary coach, Todd Nelson, they learned that sweeping a series doesn’t make you untouchable, that arrogance will be the demise of any man and what it means to truly become a team on and off the ice.

Following Tuesday’s win was Friday’s community celebration. Filling Rosa Parks Circle to capacity with thousands of fans baking in their jerseys in the hot summer sun to show their love and support for their Griffins. It was an emotional gathering as we laughed, cried and relived the glory with our fellow citizens and team. We said “hello” to the Calder and “goodbye” to hockey season in one breath – until October that is.

As I sit, reliving every moment, I am overwhelmed. Only here, is there a day officially dedicated as “Griffins Day” and only here are the radio broadcasters, commentators and mascots just as much of the team as the players themselves. The celebration will continue until the battle begins once again with the start of a new hockey season, and then we will defend our title. The Calder is home at last in Hockeytown West and if next season is anything like this one, it’ll stay here.


Quest for the Calder | Fan Edition

Quest for the Calder – A Friendly Reminder to the Fans

I starred blankly at the TV screen from my perch on the couch at the downtown Grand Rapids Peppino’s. There’s no way the team I just watched get destroyed by Syracuse was the same one I saw the night before. Crestfallen and dismayed, I left Peppino’s with my rally towel now feeling like an anvil in my hand.

The feelings that linger even now are shared by many, but none more so than the team itself. The Grand Rapids Griffins’ shocking loss to Syracuse Saturday night has unfortunately overshadowed their beautiful performance Friday night.

What happened is no longer relevant as we march forward in the quest for the Calder Cup. Maintaining uncanny composure, Coach Nelson has responded to the prying media and disheartened fan base that games like this happen and the best thing a team can do is learn and move on. At first glance, such a reminder may seem like a carbon-copy excuse for poor performance however, sometimes the most simple solution is the best solution.

All of this is to say, that yes, its disappointing to have such a loss following our boys back to Grand Rapids but, we as fans have a duty to forget and recover just as much as we expect our players to. Let us not forget that Syracuse comes to our house next and we are not going relinquish our home-victory streak as they did. The cup belongs in Hockeytown West – lets be fans worth of it.

Calder Cup Finals | GR vs da ‘Cuse

Anyone who was under the assumption that this would be an easy series is likely second guessing their assumptions – as well they should. Grand Rapids and Syracuse faced off at the Van twice so far this weekend and each game bore markedly different atmospheres. Game 1, held on Friday, packed a healthy crowd of 8,857. Game 2, a remarkable 10,834 die-hard Griffins fans swarmed the Van Andel – amplifying the Hockeytown West craze. Grand Rapids was crawling with festival goers and hockey fans, making it next to impossible to find a parking spot. Its a small price to pay in light of history being made. Here’s a little break down of said history…

Game 1 – Peeve, Play and Player of the game.

Peeve – Defensive breakdown. Allowing a short handed goal is bad enough – but to allow one in the finals is a concern. Allowing Syracuse to simply walk through our defense was a little upsetting to say the least.

Play – The Captain strikes again. Taking an assist mid-way through the 2nd period from Bertuzzi and Campbell, the ever-patient Paetsch was ready and waiting at the top of the right circle. An effortless wrist shot tied the game and recharged the waning Griffins.

Player – The Man. The Machine. His name is Bert. Earning two assists game one, Bert is making his presence known and no doubt, catching the eye of the big wigs in Detroit. Bertuzzi was everywhere, throwing his body into every shot and masterfully controlling the puck. For more, check out my guest writer’s player review The Man. The Machine. The MVP.

Game 2 – Peeve, Play and Player of the Game

Peeve – Dump and chase is my nemesis and all too familiar to Detroit fans. Not only does this style of play exhaust the players, but in game two, it made it impossible for the Griffins to get to the puck. Syracuse has proven to have exquisite board play and speed – whenever the puck was dumped, the Crunch got their first almost every time.

Play – It goes without saying – Tangradi to Street in the double overtime winner. Using his enormity, Tangradi carried the puck into the Syracuse zone with Street tailing him at center. In a bam-bam play, Tangradi flicked a backhand pass to Street who hammered it home to end the almost 5 period game. The deafening volume of the crowd likely paled in comparison to the relief felt by the Griffins.

Player – His name is Ben. Street had two goals and an assist in game two – including the game winner. Bumping up to 6 post season goals, Street’s on-ice authority is unquestionable. His speed is uncanny as is his ability to be ever-present in critical moments such as double overtime.

Game two was frustrating to say the least. Likely more so for Syracuse, who immediately evacuated the playing surface after overtime ended. They out-skated and out-played the Griffins the entire game and after delivering 55 shots on goal only to lose is disappointing. They will be in search of retribution upon their return home.

Heading back to Syracuse will put the Griffins at a disadvantage and they will need to clean up their play prior to faceoff on Wednesday. They know this better than any of us and I have no doubt that they’ll meet the challenge head on. Until Wednesday, we all can breathe.

Glorious! Western Conference Victors

Glory comes at a price, $22 a ticket to be exact. I have attended every home playoff game thus far and have yet to regret spending the money or the time. The Griffins did their hometown proud in the would-be final game of series 3 against San Jose, concluding the Western Conference Finals with a 4-2 victory. The Van Andel had a fan-eruption as the final horn sounded, ringing in the last leg of the Calder Cup playoffs. 8,876 pair of hands were airborn as well as a few octopi – paying homage to our beloved NHL affiliate – the Detroit Red Wings.

As the crowd roared, players shared the customary center-ice handshakes, and the Griffins saluted the crowd, the emotions pulsating through the stands could be felt. Zane’s voice, barely audible, announced our upcoming rivalry reborn – the Syracuse Crunch. An epic Calder Cup final round rematch was about to be brought to life. For now however, we will revel in the victory.

Peeve of the Game:
Its hard to think of something I didn’t exactly like when we win, but I will say that game three’s board play hurt my heart a bit. San Jose is a quality team in many respects and one of those respects would be their ability (in game 5 anyways) to win along the boards/ They had us looking a little frantic for a time. Also, we made the Big Man sweat a bit too much. 41 shots to 26 is nothing to shake a stick at! Well, I guess if you’re the goaltender, you should probably at least try shake your stick at those shots, but I digress. My metaphorical hat is off to Coreau and his outstanding performance.

Play of the Game:
After fending off San Jose’s Julius Bergman, Campbell carried the puck behind the net, expertly controlling it. Wrapping around the glove side of goaltender, Grosenick, Campbell centered the shot to a patiently waiting Ford who slammed it home to put the Griffins up by two. My favorite part of this play wasn’t the goal, but the enormous smile and finger point to Campbell that Ford delivered. What the two had planned just moments before the puck dropped, panned out perfectly.

Player of the Game:
Campbell – hands down. Admittedly, he has flown under my radar this season, but he has proven to be a phenomenal play-maker and dynamic hockey player throughout this playoff run. His ability to play the puck, read the passes, make the opportunities and be physical has left me very impressed. The playoffs force an entirely new level of athleticism and all must rise the the challenge. Campbell has risen. Though not scoring any goals of his own at Saturday’s game, he assisted in one goal and has firmly established his on-ice presence. Keep your eyes on this one.

I have laughed, almost cried, yelled till I was red in the face and enjoyed an astronomical amount of fish-puns this series but I’m glad its over and we’re on to the next! The team I have seen in this playoff run plays like champions. With a much needed break ahead of them, the Griffins will be prepared for Syracuse and the rivalry that all of the AHL will be watching.

Congratulations, Grand Rapids Griffins. The 2017 Western Conference Champions!

Quest for the Cup | Game 4 GR vs SJ

Jenae - Guest Writer

Guest Writer: Jenae

The Griffins had me worried coming into game four at the Van Andel Arena. Game three had reminded me that the Calder is not going to be easily won. Turn overs, sloppy passing and penalties all contributed to the feeling that “Hey, we could honestly lose this game.” When your team wins…you get used to it. Game four started earlier than game time on Friday the 26th. Our friends at the Van started the game night off right with a fish fry in front of the arena complete with dunk tank to soak our favorite news anchors. We take our puns seriously here in Grand Rapids. No doubt the Grand Rapids Griffins wanted to forget how they played in game three as much as the fans did (regardless of a win) and come back to the team they know they are. As soon as game four started, I knew our Griffins were back.
Peeve of the Game
Costly calls are always accompanied by adversity. By the third period both teams had enough bad blood between them to fill the arena and the fans along with them. There’s nothing like feeling your team is avenging your personal feelings in the game, even when we realize we ended up with some 20 minutes of penalty minutes as a result of one brawl. The beginning of the game proved to be a trial after a penalty shot that put the Barracuda on the board first. It’s worse when the opposing team scores after the crowd puts so much sting behind their boo-ing and jeering. The opposing team scores and you half wish McIlrath would give them a good punch. Even with the penalty shot, the Barracuda failed to get on the board again until another penalty in the third period bringing their deficit back to just two goals. Yet, even with these two goals resulting from penalties, the Griffins killed two two-man advantages after San Jose pulled their goalie with just over five minutes left of the period.
Play of the Game
After a penalty shot awarded to the Barracuda and scored by Blackwell, we were all hungry for a tie to the game. Our tie and definitive lead came a period later with a score by Tyler Bertuzzi. I sit in section 207. From 207 you can see a lot, but sometimes not the intricacies of each play. It wasn’t until the detailed playback I saw what I deem my play of the game. Goals, unless unassisted, come from intentional plays by the team. Bertuzzi’s game shifting goal was spurred on from teammates Kyle Criscuolo and Eric Tangradi. Tangradi shot the puck to the net and Criscuolo controlled it in front of the net on San Jose’s Grosenick’s glove side. Criscuolo then passes to Tyler Bertuzzi on Grosenick’s blocker side for the goal. This subtle play catapulted the Griffins to gain another 5 goals in the game scored by Tangradi, Nosek, Frk, Street and Svechnikov.
Player of the Game
With a team like this season’s Grand Rapids Griffins it is nearly impossible to choose one player of the game. It takes the full 60+ minutes of a game to hear the stars of the game and yet another countless hours of considering all the details to pick your own player of the game. Game four’s player of the game for me was Tomas Nosek. Nosek is the player of the game and also the most improved from game three to game four. It is a rarity for Tomas Nosek to miss a beat, but game three seemed to have nearly beaten him. Great hockey players do not stay down for long, however, and Nosek is a great hockey player. Sporting a +1, one assist, one goal and three shots, Nosek was a formidable opponent to the Barracuda. He is everywhere on the ice, making plays and defending his teammates to get those penalty minutes. The Czech Republic native has 7 goals and 5 assists in the playoffs and has accumulated 12 points.
There’s not much to complain about in game four of the Western Conference Finals and there is so much to brag about. This season of Griffins is the deepest and most talented crew I remember seeing. Comprised of well-rounded players and a top notch coach in Todd Nelson, the Grand Rapids Griffins are proving their worth with every series won.

Beat. The. Fish.

Going Fishing | GR vs SJ Game 3

The fans at Wednesday’s game 3 against the San Jose Barracuda were wrestling with a strange new sensation – one they’ve rarely felt and have long since suppressed the memory of; failure. The first two periods were heavily dominated by San Jose who came off the bench with sticks blazing. They were seemingly everywhere and gave our boys hardly a moment to breathe! This uneasy feeling swept the crowd and you could almost here the thoughts of the fans surrounding you, “What if we lose?” The answer to that is quite simple, you leave brokenhearted, tail between your legs and hope Friday’s game is different. I am pleased to say that awful sensation was crushed in the third period. The Griffins rallied to shut down the Barracuda once and for all in this game three.

For those who didn’t see fit to show support by attending Wednesday night’s game (you know who you are), here’s what you missed and for all others, enjoy reliving the moments!

Peeve of the Game:

I like starting with this one because its therapeutic to get it off my chest. Two words – sloppy turnovers. I will be cruel for a moment here and say that tonight was the first time I’d seen such a messy display of passing and neutral zone turnovers all season long. I dare say, based on the first two periods, San Jose out skated us. Lets not do that again.

Play of the Game:

Cally is at it again! Number 15 didn’t get a hat trick this time, but his beautiful little chip shot  with 3:40 remaining in the third period from the side of the net was a beauty. Sprawled on his back, San Jose’s goaltender Troy Grosenick (who commendably faced 42 shots) was busy fending off a brood of players piling around him and sticks poking at his side. He failed to notice Callahan sweeping in behind the net. Catching a small rebound, Callahan popped the shot right in. I felt slightly bad for Grosenick – but not for too long.

Player of the Game:

We call him Captain. Paetsch, though typically a man of the shadows, leading behind the scenes and allowing the young-guns to hone their skills, played a very solid game of hockey. Adding another notch to his belt with a goal at 13:47 in the first period to tie it at one each. Shockingly, he even did time in the sin bin! Paetsch’s leadership has been imperative to this team’s growth and is apparent whenever he takes the ice.

I was not enamored with the game as a whole, but the Griffins made up for it in the third period. Walking away from the Van on Wednesday, I concluded that I still think it’ll be a 4-3 series win for the Griffs, but its going to be a long road. The Barracuda are the fish out of water here – lets keep it that way.

Quest for the Calder | Series 2 Recap – Series 3 Preview

Loyal Griffins fans will tell you that they knew all along that the Griffs would beat Chicago to advance to round three of the Calder Cup playoffs. What no fan will tell you (or they will at least hesitate to admit) that there were times when they doubted and held their breath.

With a definitive lead in the second series, the Griffs scared their hometown fans half to death with a devastating loss in game three. Like any Detroit affiliated sports fan, we blamed the goaltender, the rigorous post-season travel schedule and Gary Bettman – because somehow the NHL commissioner was rigging AHL games too. Deep down however, we knew that our well-seasoned team wasn’t about to give up just yet. Riding the coat-tails of a game four win and after a jarring reminder from Coach Nelson, that arrogance would be their downfall, the Griffins claimed the series in game five at Chicago, and proved that their tenacity was far superior to momentary disappointment.

With a roster teeming with rookie talent such as Hicketts, Renouf and Criscuolo, the following series will be a testament to the veteran leadership – for better or for worse. Closing out the second series, the Griffins have proven to be a team built on comradery and steely determination. As the playoffs progress, my eyes will be on the young ones; the budding players who are now experiencing playoff hockey at a higher level. The challenge, I’m sure, is readily accepted and anticipated.

As series three draws closer, the Griffins must prepare to embark on the grueling coast-to-coast travel and encounter a familiar foe; the San Jose Barracuda. Meeting a handful of times in the regular season, San Jose has left the Griffins win-less more than once. Beginning the series away will be a detriment to Grand Rapids, but with fresh legs, eager youth and bolstered by the veterans, they will come out of the gate ready to reclaim the Calder.

My expectations are much like many Griffins fans, however, they are seasoned with a little bit of realism. Though I’d love to think that the third series will be a sweep, weathered fans know better. San Jose will not be overlooked and should not be taken lightly. I would venture to say that this series may be the most difficult of them all. If I had to predict, I’d say to expect seven games for a 4-3 victory for the Griffins. Bold? Yes, of course – is there any other way to be in the playoffs?

The loyal fan following will be behind their Griffins every step of the way. Between late night viewing parties at Peppino’s and dusting off that old FM radio to listen to the familiar voice of Bob Kaser, we’ll be pulling for them here in Hockeytown West. The freezer on Fulton will be ready for their return – all of us anxiously awaiting the return of the Calder Cup to Grand Rapids.

Quest for the Calder | Hattie for Cally

The start of game four had me a little concerned, I’ll be honest. The first period was sloppy at first. The vast majority of the game in fact, was full of cheap shots from both teams, poor turnovers, and moments where I felt tired just watching them dump-and-chase from one zone to the next. It reminded me of a scene in the movie “Miracle” where Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell yells at Johnson saying, “…that coast to coast stuff might work here, but it won’t against the teams we’ll be playing.”

It was over fifteen minutes into the first period before those taunting double-zeros on the score board finally changed, sparking the flame the Griffins needed to pull off the 6-3 victory over Chicago. I’m going to go against my own grain here and do my game review a little different – bullet point style! Everyone loves a good bullet point list, so here are my peeves, plays and players of the night.

Peeve of the Night:
Questionable Calls: Referees and linesmen have the toughest job on the ice. They are not crowd favorites and one call could change the course of the game – for better or worse. Tonight’s performance was, for the most part, acceptable. There were several moments however, that reminded me of something a Walleye fan said to me during a recent playoff game – that the home team would have to get decapitated before getting a power play opportunity. The physical play is to be expected and in some ways, encouraged, in the playoffs. But I was not overwhelmingly impressed with the on-ice calls.

Play of the Night:
Without a doubt, it would be Callahan’s beautifully executed shot (assisted by Tangradi) with 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock. It was a Miracle moment to say the least, and gave the Griffins the momentum (albeit, delayed) heading into the second period. It was a goal worthy of the highlight reels.

Player of the Night:
Mitch Callahan, one of the few veterans remaining on the team from the Griffins last Calder championship, earned his first 2017 playoff hat-trick. He has, in my opinion, been one of the most improved players since the start of this regular season and he continues to grow. Chicago is not an easy team on the ice (or the eyes), and despite their blatant dislike of Callahan, he continued to push and lead his team to victory. It seems to me, that he’s embracing his informal leadership position and helping pave the way to victory.

Overall, I’m happy to add another “W” to my bracket and to say that I am a Griffins fan. I mentally shake hands with Cally for his excellent game and to the rest of the boys for being a perfect example of teamwork.

Quest for the Calder | GR vs CHI

The playoffs are unpredictable, blood curdling and heart stopping all at the same time. In a nutshell, you should have a Life Alert on you at all times. Saturday’s game was the essence of the playoff hockey spirit.

After an embarrassing loss to Chicago Friday (pardon the brashness), the Griffins came home to Grand Rapids with high hopes of taking the series lead and putting Friday behind them. The hometown crowd, ever faithful and supportive, was more than happy to encourage the demise of Chicago and spur on their boys. In decisive fashion, the Griffins tallied 3 goals in the first period courtesy of Street, Ford and Bertuzzi, stunting the Wolves momentum from the previous match. Despite a Chicago goaltending change (Husso replaced by Binnington), the Griffins held the 3-0 lead until a shocking turn of events in the third period.

The Wolves, a very capable team, did not take long after the puck dropped in the third period, to reassert their playoff finesse. A poor turnover resulted in Chicago’s Butler, making a statement of his own and followed shortly after a one-time shot from MacEachern. Blindsided by the sudden turn of events, the Griffins determined to take the game back into their hands. Firing everything that touched his stick, the Griffins’ Joe Hicketts decidedly took control of the game and netted a powerhouse slap shot – sealing the fate of Chicago.

Coming into the game, admittedly, I was anxious but like any hockey fan, hopeful. I know the team I’ve watched grown and mature through the season, could take the disappointment of loss and make it work to their advantage. Grand Rapids goaltender, Jared Coreau, played the best I’ve seen him play in this playoff run. With a strong glove hand and many key saves, he stopped 27 shots and stood his ground – defying any idle chatter in regards to his performance the night before. I am often a naysayer when it comes to goalies, as are many hockey fans, and I can be perhaps a little hard on them, but Coreau has shown to be a dominating figure between the pipes and has been living up to his “The Big Man” nickname.

As expected, the second round of these Calder Cup playoffs has proven to be significantly more physical and grueling. The unmistakable Chicago-style of play will only increase as the series trickles along, and the Griffins will be ready for the challenge.

Game four is scheduled at the Freezer on Fulton Monday evening. Though the Griffins lead the series 2-1, its too soon to relax just yet. Its the playoffs – anything can happen.

From Toledo with Love | Legend of Lerg

The few short hours I have been in Toledo, one thing can be said of this city; they are intensely loyal to their sports teams. Today, I found myself being thankful I was coming as a fan rather than foe. With hockey stick-flag poles waiving, yellow towels in the air and voices raised to unearthly decibels, eight thousand Walleye fans packed the Huntington Center. The crowd favorite? None other than their pint-size netminder, Jeff Lerg.

Lerg, standing at a surprising 5’6″ is not much to look at at first; until he takes to the ice that is. Methodical and composed, the Walleye’s golden boy has unmatched speed and precision. Returning to the Walleye in January, Lerg has quickly established himself as the anchor for the team’s playoff run. Coming into tonight’s game two of playoff series two, Lerg has maintained a 2.09 GAA and 0.914 save percentage. The little giant’s style could be categorized as a calm Dominic Hasek. Covering the crease in an instant, Lerg quite literally launches himself wherever the puck is. Despite the 10 shot defect the Walleye battled against throughout the entire game, Lerg remained strong in the net, making critical saves. Despite his size, its fair to say this fun size goaltender will not be easily overlooked.

The Walleye cumulatively, played at a level that is to be expected during the playoffs. Quick to the puck and the net, they managed to post a goal with only 22 seconds played in the first period. Adding a phenomenal breakaway goal late in the second period, the Walleye seemed to have control and possession. The Kometz however, were not going to take this one laying down. In a stunning twist of irony, as the crowd pursued a “Nagle Sucks” chant (unfortunate for the visiting goaltender), the Kometz’s Thomas fired one passed Lerg to tie the game.

The Walleye’s #25, Dane Walters, once more put the Kometz on edge with a goal with 6:17 to play in regulation. To say the crowd was excited would be one of the most understated descriptions of the year. Electrified or explosive would likely be better words. I even saw someone drop their beer in light of the celebration; a worthy sacrifice. With moments to play in the third period, the Kometz pulled Nagle in a desperate attempt to tie the game and force overtime – and their attempts paid off. With a meager 20.6 seconds remaining, the Kometz scored. Having had enough, the Walleye’s Walters sealed the deal in overtime, adding another point to his post-season record and another notch in Toledo’s belt.

With their unpretentious goaltender, strong offense and verging-on-psychotic fan-base, the Walleye have a promising playoff run ahead of them. Showing themselves to be capable competitors, Toledo has talent enough to justify their hometown crowds’ devotion.