Griffins' Quest for Division Title Down to the Wire
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - A controversial late goal by Lake Erie kept Grand Rapids' celebration on ice for another night, as the Monsters took a 4-2 decision over the Griffins on Friday in front of the eighth sellout crowd of the season at Van Andel Arena.
Sprung from the penalty box with 3:17 left in the third, David van der Gulik made contact with Nathan Paetsch at the right point in the Griffins' zone, sending Paetsch to the ice to force a turnover and spark an odd-man rush the other way. Andrew Agozzino quickly picked up the orphaned puck and sent it up to van der Gulik, who fed Colin Smith for the game-winner while the Griffins' defense was still in disarray. Matthew Pufahl's empty-netter, the first goal of his pro career, then sealed the result with 58 seconds left.
Toronto's loss to Utica tonight means that the Griffins are destined for either the No. 2 or No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. But with Chicago's 5-3 win over Rockford, the Wolves stayed alive in their battle with the Griffins for the Midwest Division title and that second seed, which will ultimately face the seventh-seeded Rochester Americans in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Griffins' magic number for clinching a second-straight Midwest Division crown remains at two points, heading into the final day of the AHL's regular season on Saturday. A Grand Rapids win at Lake Erie would do the job, as would either a Chicago regulation loss against Milwaukee or overtime/shootout losses by both the Griffins and Wolves.
The Griffins (46-23-2-4) enjoyed a dominating 10-1 shot advantage in the scoreless opening period, not yielding a Monsters shot until the final minute of play. It almost marked just the second time in its history that Grand Rapids didn't allow a shot on goal during a 20-minute period, nearly matching the third period of a 4-3 shootout loss to Manitoba on March 3, 1998.
Despite the tilted ice in the early going, it was Lake Erie that lit the scoreboard first with just 4:22 remaining in the second frame, as Agozzino's shot from the right circle pinballed behind Petr Mrazek.
The Monsters pushed their advantage to 2-0 less than three minutes into the third when J.T. Wyman jammed home a centering pass at the top of the crease at 2:21. But the Griffins finally got on the scoreboard at the 5:04 mark when Andrej Nestrasil slapped a perfect drop pass by Landon Ferraro past Sami Aittokallio from the left faceoff dot, trimming the deficit back to one.
Exactly 2:05 later, Teemu Pulkkinen tied matters with his team-leading 31st goal of the season, winding up in the right circle and blistering a shot over the left shoulder of the helpless Lake Erie netminder. But the Griffins were ultimately unable to prevent the Monsters from pulling the upset, as Lake Erie (31-33-1-10) won for just the third time in its last 12 games.
Three players made their Grand Rapids and AHL debuts tonight, as the overhauled Griffins iced a lineup that included only nine players who participated in their season opener. Andreas Athanasiou played his first pro game and earned an assist on Nestrasil's goal, and Mattias Backman and Mattias Janmark logged their first North American contests.
Mrazek made 20 saves in defeat while Aittokallio finished with 25 stops.
Notes: The Griffins welcomed a capacity crowd of 10,834 for the fourth time in their last six games, finishing the season with an average attendance of 8,220 that ranks second in the AHL and stands as their largest attendance since the 1999-00 season. Grand Rapids has realized attendance increases for four straight seasons and seven of the last eight years.
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