Griffins Win Midwest Division, Await First-Round Foe
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - It may not have happened how they envisioned it, but the Grand Rapids Griffins are Midwest Division champions for the second time in three seasons under coach Jeff Blashill.
Despite suffering a 7-3 loss to the Charlotte Checkers in Saturday's regular season finale at Van Andel Arena, the Griffins claimed the division title by virtue of Rockford's 3-1 loss to Toronto, completing a worst-to-first climb up the Midwest standings. Grand Rapids spent much of the opening two months of the campaign in fifth place and still found itself in fourth - 12 points behind then-leader Rockford - entering play on Jan. 23, when the Griffins began their season-concluding 27-6-3-1 (0.784) tear.
After winning their fifth division title in 14 seasons as members of the American Hockey League and seventh overall, the Griffins (46-22-6-2) will enter the Calder Cup Playoffs as the No. 2 seed and will face either Chicago or Toronto in the best-of-five Western Conference Quarterfinals. Those two clubs meet Sunday in the Windy City at 5 p.m. EDT, with Grand Rapids awaiting the winner and conference champ Utica taking on the loser in the first round.
Tom McCollum was tested only a minute into the game by a shorthanded 2-on-0 break by the Checkers, but he stoned both Brendan Woods' initial shot from the slot and Brock McGinn's follow at the right post. After dodging that early bullet, the Griffins lit the first lamp at the 6:47 mark, when Kevin Porter snapped a rising shot from the top of the left circle that sailed just under the crossbar behind Drew MacIntyre.
But Charlotte (31-38-6-1) took the lead to the locker room by scoring twice in the final 3:40 of the period. Justin Shugg's slap shot from the left circle during a power play found an opening in the top left corner of McCollum's cage, before McGinn's stumbling attempt from the right half-wall was inadvertently deflected into the net by the blade of defenseman Xavier Ouellet's stick at the 18:48 mark.
The Checkers' power play tip drill worked to perfection early in the second to build the visitors a 4-1 lead. Alex Aleardi's redirection at 2:24 sent McCollum to the bench in favor of Jared Coreau, who was promptly welcomed by a similar tally by Chad LaRose at 6:09. Mario Lamoureux then finished off a rush by tapping home a centering pass at 13:38 to push the cushion to four, but Andy Miele cut Grand Rapids' deficit back to 5-2 by sending a laser past MacIntyre's glove from the high slot with 1:38 left in the stanza.
Nathan Paetsch's blast from between the circles snuck through MacIntyre at 13:39 of the third to inch the Griffins closer, but Phil DiGiuseppe answered for Charlotte at 17:08 before LaRose scored into an empty net with 27 seconds left for the final margin.
The Griffins' penalty killing unit was victimized three times in four chances, after having allowed just one power play goal in its previous 10 games, while the team's offense was unable to consistently solve MacIntyre despite finishing with a 52-30 advantage in shots. The former Griffin finished with 49 saves, while McCollum stopped 10 of 13 and Coreau turned aside 13 of 16 in the loss.
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Grand Rapids Griffins Postgame
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