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Grand Rapids Griffins-Syracuse Crunch Monday practice news

The Grand Rapids Griffins' trip to Syracuse, New York took exactly one hour, and the fact that they flew on Red Bird III didn't go unnoticed by the local media corps. WOOD TV8 will air tomorrow night's Game 6 in Grand Rapids (it's a 7 PM EDT start; if you live outside WXSP's broadcast area like I do, you'll be watching the Crunch's broadcasters on AHLLive.com as the Albany Times-Union reported that Time-Warner Cable will broadcast the game from Syracuse again), and they dispatched a camera crew to Van Andel Arena to get some "pre-flight" comments from the Griffins' players and coach:

I hate posting auto-play clips because I know that you hate 'em, but WZZM 13 was there, too:

Oddly enough, WXYZ's Daniel Dumas penned a superb summary of the state of the series...

After stealing the first two games on the road in the American Hockey League Calder Cup Finals against the Syracuse Crunch, the Grand Rapids Griffins have allowed the Syracuse Crunch to return the favor. What once seemed like an insurmountable 3-0 series lead has become more tenuous, as the Crunch return home riding a two-game winning streak with a chance to clinch the title on their home ice.

The Griffins have lost two straight home games to shrink their series lead to 3-2 with the final two games scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday in Syracuse, New York.  The Griffins will have their first shot to clinch the team’s first league championship in Game 6 on Tuesday at 7.p.m, and if necessary, Game 7 on Thursday.

The Griffins effort mirrors what we saw from the Red Wings during the NHL Western Conference Semifinal.  After losing Game 1 to Chicago, the Red Wings won three straight games to seize a 3-1 series lead and only needed one more win to punch a ticket to the Western Conference Final.  The Blackhawks stormed back for three straight wins to take the series 4-3.

The Griffins are looking to avoid the same fate and history suggests they will.  In 22 years of Calder Cup Finals, any team that has taken a 3-0 lead has won the championship.

The Griffins have already played two series that have gone to a winner-take-all decisive game during this postseason.

And it's doubly strange that the Syracuse Post-Standard's Lindsay Kramer was the first perso to speak with the players once they landed in in Syracuse (and we will revisit Kramer's story in a bit). How many hours did they shave off their around-Lake Erie bus ride?

"It was just quick. It wasn't 13 hours,'' Grand Rapids defenseman Nathan Paetsch said of the air travel. "It was nice and easy.''

A few days ago, the same could be said of Grand Rapids' run to the Calder Cup. The team won the first three games of the Finals against the Syracuse Crunch, only to let the battling Crunch win two elimination contests to tug the best-of-seven series back to its barn for Game 6 on Tuesday and possibly Game 7 on Thursday.

The Griffins took Sunday off, and instead of kicking themselves over lost opportunities Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill said it was a day of re-energizing for the players.

"It's the same approach,'' Blashill said of returning to Syracuse. "I think every game has been a very good hockey game. We've been a good road team all year. I think our guys have a good approach.''

Before they left Grand Rapids, the Griffins also assessed their state of affairs while speaking with Michigan Hockey's Matt Gajtka:

"I know I’d rather be up 3-2 than down in the series, no matter how you get there,” Griffins coach Jeff Blashill said.

As obvious as that sounds, the numbers are overwhelmingly on Blashill’s side. Thirty-four of the previous 76 Calder Cup Finals have gone to six games; the team ahead 3-2 has won 30 of those, a more lopsided spread than math would dictate.

Adding to the Griffins’ confidence are their twin victories at Onondaga County War Memorial Arena to start the series. Grand Rapids prevailed 3-1 on June 8 and 6-4 the next night to stun the Crunch, who were 11-1 in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

“We are comfortable up there,” said Tomas Tatar, whose 19 playoff points pace the Griffins. “We had some success and look forward to going back.”

Grand Rapids also has more recent evidence in its favor: a 42-22 shot advantage in Game 5, including a 20-5 edge in the second period.

“We did a nice job applying pressure and playing what we call a ‘half-ice’ game,” Blashill said. “We were able to ‘reload’ and get back behind the puck when we lost it, so we could create more turnovers and get the puck again.”

In terms of how the Crunch are feeling heading into Game 6, the most obvious suggestion is that they're determined to prove that "bling's the thing," as literally suggested by the Syracuse Post-Standard's Kramer:

The start of the Calder Cup Finals has been grounds for a new fashion accessory for many veterans on the Syracuse Crunch.

Some players who won championship rings in Norfolk last season are wearing them now that the Crunch is playing for the same type of jewelry against Grand Rapids. So, too, is Tampa Bay assistant GM Julien BriseBois.

"I think it's one of those things that reminds us what it takes to win,'' said Crunch captain Mike Angelidis.

Defenseman Mark Barberio said he's keeping his Norfolk ring tucked away, but appreciates the message of their reappearance.

"We earned it last year,'' he said. "Guys have the right to wear it if they want to. I think it maybe gives a bit of extra motivation for the guys who weren't here last year.''

The Post-Standard's Brett Axe noted that the Crunch are trying to channel the Boston Red Sox', "Don't let us win" mantra as that team rallied from a 3-games-to-zip deficit...

No one I talked to on Monday would reveal where the "don't us let us win tonight" theme came from, but many did agree they can draw inspiration from that Red Sox team.

"It is a secret. I can't tell right now," Crunch defenseman Radko Gudas said. "I'm sure if it a happy end to the series, then it will come out."

"I don't know if we are telling people where we got it from. Don't us let us win three, we'll leave it at that," Crunch captain Mike Angelidis said.

"We were down 3-0. We wanted to get on the attack and get confident, head coach Rob Zettler said. "We are a confident team and we have no reason why we shouldn't be. Don't let us win three."

Zettler also said he wanted to keep the source of the "don't let us win tonight" theme in house, but when made aware of the 2004 Red Sox, did say "hopefully we will follow in those same footsteps."

"We were talking with some of the guys and I think at the start of the series maybe we were looking, you know, the chance to win the Calder Cup is here and we were thinking too much about winning that trophy", Crunch assistant captain Mark Barberio said. "You have to win games to get there. You have to win four games. I think maybe we were jumping a bit ahead of ourselves. We got down three games and we said alright we gotta win Friday night. We gotta win one. We did that. Same deal happened for Saturday. It is a cliche', but you have to win one game at a time now. Sometimes we forget that, but we got back to it."

And we head back to Kramer's first article to note that the Crunch insisted that they wouldn't let Grand Rapids dominate with puck possession hockey that ended up translating quite well to the Onondaga Onecenter War Memorial ice, despite the fact that the short rink (7 feet short of 200) and scrunched neutral zone actually helped the Griffins roar into the Crunch's zone with speed:

"I don't see that happening again in Game 6 or 7,'' Syracuse coach Rob Zettler said Monday. "They played well. I thought we played average. I don't think we we're anywhere near our best the first two games.''

Syracuse defenseman Mark Barberio agreed.

"It takes some time to figure each other out. Our first two games here were our first two games ever seeing each other. I think we let them dictate too much of the play when we were on our home ice. It's good to be back home now. We have a second chance in front of our fans. I think last week, we let them down.''

The Crunch may or may not receive a roster reinforcement as well:

- Injured Syracuse defenseman Radko Gudas skated through the full Crunch practice on Monday and Zettler said he remains probable for Tuesday's game.

"I have been practicing today with the team, tomorrow I will do the same and we will decide based on what the doc will say and what tomorrow will feel like," Gudas said Monday.

If you're into "warm fuzzies," you can also read Kramer's story about defenseman J.P. Cote's possible last kick at the Calder Cup can...

But Griffinshockey.com's Kyle Kujawa did posit a post-practice slate of comments from the Griffins, and I would guess that you're more interested in the Griffins' side of the story:

 

“Here’s the deal: Game 1 was close, and we won,” said head coach Jeff Blashill. “Game 2 was close, and we won. I think the same is true in Games 3, 4 and 5. We won one of those, and we lost two. There’s no secret to this. We have to come in here and play good hockey.”

Although a sweep in front of a beyond-capacity Van Andel Arena would have been an incredible ending to a great season, it wasn’t in the cards. But the Griffins aren’t looking negatively at the lost opportunity, instead focusing on the fact that they are still one win away from their first Calder Cup championship.

“I don’t think many people expected us to win the whole thing coming into this anyway, right?” said captain Jeff Hoggan. “I still think they’re the favorite, and I think if you ask them, they feel like the favorite.

“Having two cracks to win it in front of the fans at home was nice,” he continued. “But it doesn’t matter. We still have a chance to win this thing on the road. We won here before, and we’ll come prepared.”

After a combined 99 regular season and playoff games, the Griffins know that a pair of losses at home are just one more bump in the roller-coaster ride of the postseason. They’re hoping that a refreshing day away from the rink on Sunday is the remedy they need to take Game 6, in what will be the latest (June 18) an AHL game has ever been played.

“The playoffs are so much like the NHL season, it’s not even funny,” said Blashill. “You’re playing every few days, and you have to find opportunities to re-energize. We had a great opportunity yesterday to do that. It was a beautiful day in Grand Rapids. The guys who are fathers had a chance to be fathers. We’re all re-energized and looking forward to the opportunity we have tomorrow.”

“It’s nice to have the day off and clear your head,” Hoggan said. “We put ourselves in a position to win at home, and coming into the series, that didn’t seem too likely. We’ll use that to our advantage. Houston pushed us to the brink, Game 6 of the third period against Toronto could have gone either way, and we had the same against Oklahoma City. We’re battle-tested, and we’ve played some tough teams.”

Kujawa continues at length, but I'm gonna over-quote him because coach Blashill offered a refreshing take on the Crunch given that Zettler has issued seemingly mocking quips thus far:

“We’re a confident team,” said Blashill. “We have a lot of respect for our opponent all the time, but we’re confident in ourselves as well. I felt that way going into the series, and I still feel that way now. We knew Syracuse was a really good hockey team, and we maintain a lot of respect for them. We believe in our own ability as well.”

For the record:

1. The Griffins' Facebook page noted that the team holds a scrimmage at the conclusion of practice, and the loser does laps;

2. And the Griffins' Flickr photo gallery from practice includes one Adam Almquist both taking part in pre-practice soccer and practicing with the team (interesting that Danny DeKeyser's still wearing Bauer gloves, but the Bauer logo on his helmet's been taped over, and he's using a pair of Louis-Marc Aubry's CCM RBZ Stage II sticks; Nyquist's still got the Warrior gloves and stick, so I wonder if the Griffins ran into an, "We're gonna let the non-CCM-Reebok gloves thing go, but you're only allowed X stick exceptions" situation as players are supposed to only wear Reebok-CCM helmets, gloves, sticks and pants);

If you missed it, the Free Press's Aaron McMullin spoke with both Blashill and Riley Sheahan about what is doubtlessly a rebound season for the 6'2" center, both on and off the ice--and in doing so, Sheahan inadvertently admits that the biggest difficulty in terms of adjusting from college hockey to pro hockey (ditto for major junior or European hockey) involves the amount of free time players are given to...Pursue their own interests:

“He’s put himself in a position, in the future, to become a Red Wing,” first-year Griffins coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s impossible to say (when), but it has to do with opportunity and how he continues to improve.”

Maturing has been part of the process, too. A bizarre fall drunken-driving arrest in Grand Rapids in which Sheahan, then 20, was wearing a Teletubby costume resulted in a one-game suspension and the organization seeking help for him. His blood-alcohol content level was registered at .30, more than four times the legal driving limit in Michigan.

“Coming in from a school where the schedules are a little different and you’re playing with guys your own age, you get a little more leeway to slack off,” Sheahan said of the maturation process. “Here, as the season has gone on, I’ve definitely learned a lot.”

Sheahan has been able to put distractions behind him, tallying 36 points — including 16 goals — in 72 regular-season games for Grand Rapids.

He said his off-season will be spent adding muscle and finding a skating instructor to improve his stride and explosiveness — something Red Wings coach Mike Babcock suggested after Sheahan's April call-up.

“I’ve got to get a little stronger,” said Sheahan, listed at 6-feet-2 and 207 pounds. “I have a big frame, but I need to get a little muscle on me.”

 

I don't WANT to mention this, but Hockey's Future posted a listing of the Tampa Bay Lightning's top 20 prospects, and the player the Lightning ended up picking with the 1st-rounder the Wings surrendered for Kyle Quincey tops their list:

1. (1) Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2010

Once again claiming Tampa Bay's top prospect spot, Andrey Vasilevskiy continues to impress the Lightning brass with his combination of size, mobility and quickness. As the 19th overall selection, and first goaltender taken in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Vasilevskiy enjoyed another terrific season in 2012-13. In 27 games with Ufa's junior team in Russia, he had a 1.93 goals-against average while posting a .930 save percentage. In eight games with Ufa's team in the Kontinental Hockey League, he was 4-1-0 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Most recently, while competing at the 2013 Under 20 World Junior Championship, Vasilevskiy helped Russia to a bronze medal with a 1.81 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in four games.

While he does have buyout clause in his Russian contract, it appears Vasilevskiy with remain overseas for the 2013-14 season before coming to North America. At that time, depending on further development, one would think he will be in a great position to seize the crease for Tampa's AHL affiliate in Syracuse in the fall of 2014, assuming he does not make the big club out of training camp. The Lightning are confident in their selection of Vasilevskiy as their number one goalie of the future, but would obviously love to get him to North America sooner rather than later.

Now you know the name of the player that Quincey has to out-shine for the Wings to "win the traded." And it doesn't look like that's going to happen, at least as of June, 2013.

 

And finally, Pavel Datsyuk has since deleted the Tweet, but he'd stated, "Big day tomorrow!" on his Twitter account just after the Bruins-Hawks game started. I sure hope that whatever he meant was positive.

 

Update: You probably don't care about the Syracuse Crunch's weekly press release, but it does offer some eyebrow-raising stats:

- The Crunch are 5-1 in postseason games when Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik all mark the score sheet. Johnson, Palat and Panik combined for six points in Game 5, the fourth highest total of combined points among the three in a game this postseason. The trio recorded nine points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Springfield, led by Johnson's four points (3g, 1a).

- Tyler Johnson had a goal and an assist in Game 5 of the Finals, his fifth multi-point game of the playoffs, and first since May 11 against Springfield, Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  The AHL MVP began the playoffs with multi-point efforts in four of the first five games after turning in 19 multi-point games in 62 regular season games, a team best.

- Richard Panik has goals in four straight games, one of three players who strung together goals in four games this postseason (Mark Arcobello, OKC; Trevor Smith, WBS). Panik pulled off that feat twice in the regular season, Nov. 17-24 and Dec. 31-Jan. 9. Panik's last two goals were game-winners, giving him four game-winning goals in the postseason after six during the regular season. The ten combined are most on the Crunch.

- After his one goal and two assists in Game 5, Ondrej Palat now has points in 13 playoff games this spring, including 8 multi-point performances and 4 three-point games. The Crunch are 12-1 in games when he collects a point, with the only loss coming in Game 2 of the Calder Cup Finals.

- Cedrick Desjardins has more wins, 13, than any goalie in Crunch postseason history. Karl Goehring is the previous record holder at nine wins, though Goehring owns the Crunch record for career postseason appearances by a goalie, 18. The most career postseason wins in Crunch history include: C. Desjardins, 13-4 ('13); K. Goehring, 9-8 ('04, '08); J. Labbe, 8-7 ('01, '02); M. Fountain, 7-9 ('96, '97).

- Brett Connolly scored goals in Game 4 and in Game 5 at Grand Rapids, his fifth and sixth of the playoffs. It's the first time he's recorded goals in back-to-back games this postseason after seven times in the regular season.  He was the Crunch's second leading goal scorer with 31 markers during the regular season.

- Vlad Namestnikov had one assist in Game 5, and the Crunch are now 5-0 when he has at least one point during the playoffs. Namestnikov has two goals-both game winners in the Conference Final-and four assists in his rookie postseason.

- Matt Taormina owns the best plus-minus during the Calder Cup Playoffs at plus-18 and is a plus-22 since returning to the Crunch from the Tampa Bay Lightning Apr. 9. He was a plus-10 during the regular season.

- The Crunch have trailed a best-of-seven series, 3-2, with Game 6 to be played in Syracuse twice in franchise history.  In 2002, the Crunch beat the Chicago Wolves, 6-0, in Game 6 to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Semifinals.  In 2006, the Manitoba Moose beat the Crunch 3-2 in overtime to beat the Crunch, 4-2, in the North Division Semifinals.

Update #2: Hmmm...

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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.