GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.– Eric Tangradi’swalk-off goal 3:53 into overtime on Friday provided a fitting end to the Griffins’ first-ever Whitecaps Night and gave Grand Rapids a crucial 4-3 win over the pursuing Rockford IceHogs.
After stealing the puck near the right corner during the 3-on-3, Tangradi circled up to the high slot and blew a wrist shot past the blocker of Collin Delia, igniting the Van Andel Arena crowd of 10,015.
In terms of points, the Griffins (73) have now moved within two of second-place Chicago (75) while jumping Iowa (72) and inching three ahead of Rockford (70) in a suffocatingly tight Central Division playoff race (not including the result of Milwaukee’s (69) late game at San Diego).
Nearly lost in the excitement of the evening was Todd Nelson’s 300th victory as a head coach in the AHL, which makes him just the 20th head coach in the league’s 82-year history to reach that milestone. Nelson’s wins have been split between Grand Rapids (124) and Oklahoma City (176), part of his all-time AHL ledger of 300-187-15-46 (.603).
Grand Rapids will conclude its three-game homestand on Saturday by hosting Iowa at 7 p.m., after which it will play nine of its final 12 games on the road.
The Griffins (33-23-1-6) plated their first goal with 3:23 left in the opening period. Luke Esposito’s sharp-angle shot from the left corner was stopped by Delia, who also denied Matthew Ford’s point-blank stab at the rebound before Ford finally batted the puck over the line on his backhand.
Grand Rapids put another across during a power play early in the second, when Matt Lorito swooped in from the right side to pop home the rebound of Matt Puempel’s long-range wrister at 3:31.
The ice began to tilt toward the Griffins’ end during the latter part of the period, but Tom McCollum held down the fort with a series of saves until the IceHogs (31-24-4-4) eventually broke through on Viktor Svedberg’s slap shot from the left point with four minutes remaining, making it a 2-1 contest.
The Griffins, who on Wednesday held an identical lead on Iowa through two periods before allowing three third-period goals en route to a painful 4-2 loss, were outshot 6-0 over the first 10 minutes of the third and ceded the tying goal at the 10:26 mark. Svedberg again did the damage, keeping the puck in at the left point while eluding a defender, then floating a shot from the boards through traffic that McCollum never saw.
Grand Rapids refused to fall behind in the count, though, capitalizing on another power play to go ahead 3-2. Lorito worked his way down to the bottom of the right circle before sending a pass across to Ben Street on the goalmouth for a redirection that marked Lorito’s second assist and third point of the night.
The IceHogs called timeout and pulled Delia for an extra attacker with less than two minutes remaining, and the move paid off with 41 seconds showing on the clock. Cody Franson’s shot from the top of the left circle was deflected past McCollum by Luke Johnson, sending the game to extras.
Adam Clendening nearly ended it 1:46 into overtime but his shot rang off the post, and McCollum made a lunging save to his left on Chris DiDomenico at 3:23 to again keep the Griffins alive and set the stage for Tangradi’s heroics.
McCollum finished with 29 saves while Delia countered with 18.
Notes: Grand Rapids won the season’s last four meetings against Rockford after going 0-3-0-3 over the first six…The Griffins celebrated the local Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers by wearing West Michigan Whitecaps-inspired jerseys along with stirrup-styled socks, blue gloves and blue pant shells. Promotions and personalities familiar to Whitecaps fans highlighted the night, and the jerseys were auctioned to fans after the game. Proceeds will benefit the family of Jake Engel, the Griffins’ corporate sales account manager and former Whitecaps employee who passed away last month.
Three Stars: 1. GR Lorito (power play goal, two assists); 2. RFD Svedberg (two goals); 3. GR Tangradi (overtime goal)