The Malik Report
by George Malik on 05/18/14 at 10:29 PM ET
Updated substantially at 12:49 AM: Repeating as a champion is the hardest task a hockey team can accomplish--at any level--and the Grand Rapids Griffins fell short on Sunday night, dropping a 7-1 loss to the Texas Stars (including 2 empty-net goals against) which eliminated the Griffins from the Calder Cup playoffs.
Having watched the game, I can tell you that the Griffins went down fighting, but they also went down in a disturbingly familiar fashion: playing against a bigger, heavier team, the Griffins struggled mightily to defend against the Stars' dynamic offense, and they did so for the most part because they couldn't sustain puck possession.
Minus injured defensemen Alexey Marchenko and Adam Almquist, the team couldn't move the puck out of its zone as quickly as it was accustomed to, and as a result, an abundance of turnovers, penalties and superb-but-not-otherworldly goaltending from Petr Mrazek allowed the Stars to have their way with Grand Rapids--to the point that the Griffins forcing fifth and sixth games could be seen as a moral victory, especially given how ridiculously the Griffins were out-shot (35-24 in this game was downright respectable).
With the World Championships winding down and teams' rosters more or less finalized, nobody's heading to Minsk, so the Griffins will fly back to Grand Rapids, clean out their lockers on Monday or Tuesday, and head off into a summer of a whole bunch of uncertainty.
Why? The team's veterans (Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch, Triston Grant, Brennan Evans and David McIntyre [edit: According to Griffins writer/photographer Mark Newman, Hoggan and Paetsch signed 2-year deals, so they're staying]), "buried" players (Jordin Tootoo and RFA-to-be Cory Emmerton, who won't even be tendered a qualifying offer so that he can walk), the goaltender who relieved Mrazek in the AHL-only-contracted Tom McCollum, none of those players are signed for next season save Tootoo, a player the Wings want to move to another NHL team...
And all of the following players are restricted free agents who aren't waiver-exempt next season: there are three Wings-possible-additions Mitchell Callahan, Landon Ferraro and Adam Almquist, and then, per Capgeek, Gleason Fournier, Max Nicastro, Andrej Nestrasil, Willie Coetzeee and Trevor Parkes, they're all restricted free agents as well (like Emmerton, they can be made unrestricted free agents if they're not tendered qualifying offers).
Louis-Marc Aubry is signed for next season, but he won't be waiver-exempt, either...
And as you already know, Almquist, the aforementioned Alexey Marchenko and three Griffins defenders in Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet and Nick Jensen are all in the mix for spots on the Wings' blueline, with Mrazek possibly backing up Howard next year (depending on the team's plans for Jonas Gustavsson).
With goaltender Jake Paterson and forwards Zach Nastasiuk, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha(?), the recently-signed Colin Campbell, Mattias Backman all ready to turn pro on full-time bases, and players like Marek Tvrdon, Richard Nedomlel and the as-yet-unsigned Phillipe Hudon at pro hockey's crossroads (it's possible but not probable that the Wings could decide to ask University of Minnesota defenseman Ben Marshall to turn pro, too), not everyone can stay.
I'd imagine that the Griffins will try to keep their veterans, which is a task made easier by the elimination of the AHL-only-player salary cap, but McCollum's likely to find a team that will offer him a real chance at an NHL job, and while Nestrasil's earned himself a job on next year's team, Coetzee was injured for so long that nobody knows what he can or can't do, and Parkes did a fine job of scoring at the ECHL level...
I'd imagine that we'll see a significant amount of turnover, possibly including the coach--if Jeff Blashill's made available to other NHL teams by the Wings, or ends up heading back to the Wings to flank Mike Babcock's shoulder with Tom Renney and Bill Peters' futures uncertain.
Did I mention that Griffins assistant coach Spiros Anastas is heading to the University of Lethbridge, too, possibly leaving only associate coach Jim Paek behind the Griffins' bench--if the Wings don't tab him as well?
Long story long, the Red Wings now run the Griffins, and in addition to making difficult decisions regarding their NHL team's free agents (see: Daniel Alfredsson, Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary, Jonas Gustavsson, David Legwand, Kyle Quincey, Mikael Samuelsson), needing to re-sign RFAs (Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar and Danny DeKeyser) and worrying about their assistant coaching situations...
The Wings have another 33 or 34 moving parts' futures to determine, and as the team watches the Memorial Cup (Anthony Mantha's Val-d'Or Foreurs battle Tyler Bertuzzi's Guelph Storm on Monday night), the World Championships (Tomas Tatar, Jakub Kindl, Danny DeKeyser, Justin Abdelkader and Gustav Nyquist are taking part) and the team prepares its draft and free agency strategies, the management team will have its hands full for the next three months.
We won't get as many answers about the Griffins as we do regarding the Wings, either, because the AHL doesn't hold the same kind of locker room clean-out day with media saturation like the NHL does. We'll just have to wait and see, with very little clarification as to who goes where until the summer--if not next fall's training camp, where the Almquists, Callahans and Ferraros will battle for their professional tenures with Detroit--and that can be an incredibly painful experience.
It's incredibly disappointing to have seen the Griffins lose in a similar fashion to the Wings, too. Had they not struggled late in the season, they would've at least had home ice in this series, and instead, they had to rally from a 2-0 deficit and basically got mauled.
At any level of hockey, repeating as a champion is a nearly impossible task, but it still sucks when it doesn't happen.
Update: Here's the Griffins website's recap:
Eleven months to the day that they won the first pro hockey championship in the history of Grand Rapids, the Griffins saw their quest for a second Calder Cup end with a 7-1 loss to the Texas Stars on Sunday at the Cedar Park Center.
The regular season champion Stars, who claimed the Western Conference Semifinal four games to two, advance to the conference finals to face the Toronto Marlies. For the Griffins, now 2-1 in elimination games under coach Jeff Blashill, it marked their first loss in six playoff series under the AHL’s 2013-14 Coach of the Year.
The Griffins got off to a strong and necessary start by scoring just 36 seconds into the contest, as Teemu Pulkkinen slammed Riley Sheahan’s feed past Cristopher Nilstorp from the right circle.
But the home team answered with a pair of goals 1:02 apart to take a 2-1 lead. Former Griffin Chris Mueller, the overtime hero for Texas in Friday’s Game 5 in Grand Rapids, blasted a rebound inside the right post from the slot at 3:56, before Dustin Jeffrey pulled up just to the right of the goal during a 2-on-1 and stuffed the puck past Petr Mrazek.
Another former Griffin, defenseman Derek Meech, gave Texas a 3-1 advantage at the 10:37 mark, sending a slap shot by Mrazek’s stick from above the right circle.
Radek Faksa made it a 4-1 Stars lead 2:03 into the second period, finding the puck in a maze of skates in the high slot and putting a shot through Mrazek’s pads to end the goalie’s franchise-record playoff minutes streak at 2030:50 and herald the postseason debut of Tom McCollum between the Griffins’ pipes.
After being outshot 13-7 in the first period and 14-5 in the second, the Griffins surrendered a fifth goal to the Stars at 2:24 of the third when Faksa banged home a rebound for his second tally in just more than 20 minutes.
Brett Ritchie notched a power play goal from the left circle at 11:53 before Jeffrey scored his second into an empty net with a 150-foot shot at 13:44, a shorthanded tally that accounted for the final margin.
Mrazek stopped 13 of 17 in the loss while McCollum turned aside 14 of 16 in relief. Nilstorp earned the win behind 23 saves.
Notes: Six goals tied the Griffins’ record for largest margin of defeat in a playoff game. Grand Rapids suffered an 8-2 loss at Chicago on April 23, 2004 in Game 4 of the West Division Semifinals…This marked the fourth straight postseason meeting in which the AHL’s regular season champion defeated the defending Calder Cup champion. Springfield was the last Cup champion to fend off the regular season’s best, defeating Rochester in the 1991 Calder Cup Finals.
Three Stars: 1. TEX Meech (goal, assist); 2. TEX Faksa (two goals); 3. TEX Jeffrey (two goals)
The loss ends the playoff run for the Griffins, who needed to win twice in Texas to avoid elimination. They were the fourth seed in the conference after they finished second in the Midwest Division in the regular season.
The Stars, the No. 1-seed in the conference, will meet Toronto in the conference finals beginning in Texas on Friday, May 23. The Marlies completed a sweep of Chicago on Friday.
The Griffins struggled in the first two games of the series in Texas – getting outscored 9-2 - and nothing changed in their return for Game 6 before 4,002 at Cedar Park Center in Austin, Texas. Teemu Pulkkinen scored 36 seconds in the first period for a 1-0 lead, and the highlight of the night for the Griffins.
For six seasons Derek Meech was a staple on the Grand Rapids Griffins defense, playing more than 300 games for the Detroit Red Wings AHL affiliate.
On Sunday, he helped the Texas Stars close out his former team with 7-1 victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. Texas advances to the Western Conference finals against the Toronto Marlies, a best-of-7 series that will start Friday at the Cedar Park Center.
“Anytime you play your old team, you like to get the upper hand on them,” Meech said. “I know a few of the guys over there and they gave us a really good run in this series. It’s really nice to get this series over with and look forward to next round.”
Meech set up Dustin Jeffrey’s go-ahead goal with a stretch pass in the first period. He then gave Texas a two-goal cushion 5 minutes, 39 seconds later that the defending Calder Cup Champion Griffins never recovered from.
The slap shot traveled through a maze of bodies and flew past a screened Petr Mrazek, giving Meech six points in the series.
As did 100-Degree Hockey's Stephen Meserve:
Expecting a hard battle in Game 6, the Texas Stars knocked out the defending champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins, by an unexpected 7-1 score in Cedar Park Center tonight.
"You have to prepare for seven and want to win it in six," said Coach Desjardins. "We didn't expect this. They started out so quick, and it looked like it would be a long hard night. And then we just got a couple. It's funny how they go in."
The Griffins scored on the first shot of the game after a giveaway in the neutral zone came back to bite the Stars. Texas beared down and scored the next seven. The total set a record for Texas Stars goals in a single playoff game.
Desjardins continued, "To get better you have to be pushed. This series pushed us. We're a better team now than we were at the start of the series. What we had to go through in this series helped us."
Dustin Jeffrey had two goals and an assist, Derek Meech had one goal and one assist. Radek Faksa collected his first and second goals of the playoffs. Ten Texas players recorded a point in the game, including Cristopher Nilstorp. In addition to stopping 23 of 24 shots, he picked up the second assist on Dustin Jeffrey's first goal of the night.
Texas will play the Toronto Marlies starting on Friday night at the Cedar Park Center. Full game schedule will be posted shortly.
Before many had found their seats for the game, Grand Rapids was already on the board. A turnover by rookie Jyrki Jokipakka came back down at Nilstorp for the opening goal in the first shot of the game. Teemu Pulkkinen got the tally just 36 seconds into the frame.
"It's never easy when the first shot of the game goes in, but we just ignored it and responded well," said Derek Meech.
For whatever reason, the Texas Stars' website just posted their Conference Final schedule twice, but their YouTube channel posted post-game interviews with Derek Meech and coach Desjardins, as well as "Lowlights" from the first period...
The second period...
And the third period:
RedWingsCentral also weighed in:
record this season and was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team, was a playoff bright spot, finishing with a team-best five goals and six assists for 11 points in 10 games. That stood tied for second in the league at the time of elimination.
Defenseman Mattias Backman, who only joined the team in late April after spending the season in the Swedish Hockey League, was among the other standout playoff performers for the Griffins. He stepped in for injured Adam Almquist and notched a goal and five assists in 10 contests.
Right-winger Mitchell Callahan turned in a gutsy performance after returning from serious facial injuries sustained in early April, picking up a goal and four assists in eight games.
Although goaltender Petr Mrazek was pulled in the final game, he finished the post-season with a 5-4 record, a 2.80 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.