The Griffins closed out their first round series with the Abbotsford Heat Friday night at Van Andel arena in front of 7,641 excited fans, the 9th largest attendance in Griffins Playoff history. The Griffins won the first two games of the series in Abbotsford but couldn't quite complete the sweep at home, needing four games to dispel the Heat. Game one was double overtime marathon that ended 2-1 when Ryan Sproul scored with about thirty seconds left in the second overtime. Game two was an offensive explosion from the Griffins as they scored five goals on Joni Ortio before scoring two more on backup goalie Doug Carr. Game three was a disappointing loss as the Heat scored the game winning goal on the power play with a minute left in regulation. It wasn't the Griffins best game and a combination of sitting back on their heels for a short time,and Abbotsford fighting to stave off elimination sent the two team to a game four. Captain Jeff Hoggan was the hero in the series deciding game. After a very blah first period, Jeff Hoggan was not happy with how the team performed. He rallied the troops during the first intermission and a new and improved team came out to start the second period. Hoggan led the way with two goals and an assist and the entire team had much more jump. The team should be proud of how they came back and finished the game. The Griffins outscored the Heat 15-8 in the series, but outside of the 7-2 trouncing, the games were pretty close.
Adam Almquist and Jordin Tootoo were both injured in game one. Almquist when he was "hit" (pushed?) from behind and he's expected to be out about a few more days at least. He should be ready to return sometime in the second round. Jordin Tootoo was a game time decision Friday night but didn't play, so his injury shouldn't keep him out much longer either though the veteran limit and limited usefulness of Tootoo may keep him out of the lineup anyway.
3 Stars of the series.
1. Petr "The Berries" Mrazek
Petr Mrazek was sensational, posting a .936 SV% and 1.72 GAA in the four games. He absolutely stole game one for the Griffins, and made a ton of incredible saves. His numbers in this series are very good, and yet they don't do his performance justice. He made big save after big save, keeping the Griffins in the game when they faltered, and providing confidence and energy. He's been great all year and was fantastic last year as well, but he's developing a deeper level of maturity and improving his consistency too. He was a huge part of the team's success against the Heat (well, always, but specifically against the Heat). I'm running out of ways to say this kid is VERY good and he's a difference maker in just about every game.
2. Teemu "Angus" Pulkkinen
With 2 goals (both on the power play), 3 assists,16 shots on goal, and a +4 rating in 4 games, he leads the team in all of those categories. He's dangerous just about every time he's on the ice, and he's improving his play both with and without the puck. Knowing when to shoot and when to pass is incredibly valuable and he's getting increasingly better at making that decision. With Jurco, Sheahan, and Callahan all coming back into the lineup, Pulkkinen has been bumped down to the 2nd line but still mans the point on the top PP unit, and it hasn't slowed him down at all. It seems like I see him carry the puck into the zone more than almost anyone else, he battles hard, shoots the puck (oh goodness does he shoot the puck), and he just scores goals. Goals are good, in my opinion.
3. Mattias "Prince Charming" Backman
The most accurate way for me to describe Backman's play so far with the Griffins is "wow!". He's everything I hoped for and so much more. He's smart, smooth, uses his stick so effectively, makes good defensive decision, his passes are beautiful and he makes it look effortless on the ice. If that isn't enough, he's also tied for 2nd in team scoring so far in the playoffs with 4 points (1G 3A). He looks so natural jumping in on offense, driving to the net, manning the point opposite Pulkkinen on the power play, and he has moves like a forward with the puck. Yet with all the times I've seen him jump in offensively, he doesn't leave the team vulnerable, there's always someone covering defense and he makes the transition seamlessly. That combination has been invaluable for the Griffins and he's blown my expectation away so far. He's been a crucial part of the team so far, both offensively and defensively, and when Almquist comes back from injury, I wouldn't sit Backman, I'd sit Sproul or Jensen first, that's how good Backman is.
Honorable Mentions: The Leadership core of Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch, and Brennan Evans deserve a lot of credit. They set a good example on and off the ice. Jeff Hoggan is 2nd in scoring with 3 goals and 1 assist while Nathan Paetsch has 4 assists. Their off ice example has been evident as well, especially in game 4. Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, and Mitch Callahan all made their return in game 3 and made an immediate impact. Whenever that line is on the ice they're dangerous, and that line, along with Teemu Pulkkinen and Mattias Backman make up the 1st PP unit and have 4 of the Griffins 5 power play goals. Probably the only reason Jurco didn't get 2nd star instead of Pulkkinen, is because Jurco was with Detroit for half the series.
The Griffins will have to wait until later tonight to find out who their 2nd round opponent will be. Rochester and Chicago play game 5 tonight and if the Rochester Americans beat the Chicago Wolves, the Griffins will face the Toronto Marlies, a re-match of last year's 2nd round match up, and if Chicago wins, the Griffins will face the Texas Stars next. Kyle will have the series preview for whichever team the Griffins draw.