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A tale of two seasons: Tom McCollum ‘a rock’ as Griffins’ starter

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — If the Grand Rapids Griffins had any shot at defending their Calder Cup title, they would need to have stability in net.

However, with Jared Coreau’s call-up in mid-February, it appeared that stability might be shaken.

Losing a starting goalie is never easy for an AHL club, and Tom McCollum didn’t exactly have an impressive first part of the season as Coreau’s backup. In 18 starts from October to mid-February, he had a 8-8-1-2 record and a 0.900 save percentage. Since Feb. 21, McCollum is 9-5-0-0 with a 0.922 save percentage, including a 35-save shootout win against the San Jose Barracuda on Friday at Van Andel Arena.

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“I definitely feel great in my game,” McCollum told Wings Nation. “I’m very comfortable in my positioning and how I’m managing the net. At the same time, I have a ton of confidence in the guys playing in front of me. They are doing a great job. (Friday night), they did extremely well just letting me see pucks and doing a good job cleaning up the rebounds.”

Griffins confident in goalie tandem of McCollum, Machovsky

McCollum’s teammates have noticed his improved play, as well.

“Tommy’s a goalie that when he’s hot, he’s hot,” Ben Street said. “It was nice for him, I’m sure, that he got games over and over and over again. He seems to have really settled in and really gotten in a groove. He’s been huge for us because these have been tough games that he’s kept us in. He’s made some big saves and he’s made some calming saves for us, as well.

“He’s just been a rock back there for us. It’s so huge if you lose your starting goalie and the backup comes in and is basically a starter.”

The added pressure of a playoff push is nothing new for the 28-year-old goalie. Last season with the Charlotte Checkers, McCollum made 17 out of a possible 18 starts from March 10 to April 15, going 11-2-4-1 with a 0.926 save percentage.

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The Checkers grabbed the last playoff spot in the Central Division, but they lost in the first round to the Chicago Wolves.

Coach Todd Nelson said McCollum has used that experience from last season to fuel him this season.

“He’s been solid,” Nelson said. “He’s given us a chance to win every night. He’s been through this before, he knows what the stakes are. Right now, he feels comfortable in the net and looks calm.”

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Shootouts galore

The Griffins’ shootout win Friday was their fourth consecutive game that went to a shootout, with Grand Rapids winning three of those four games.

McCollum has been in net for all three recent shootout wins. So, is he sick of them yet?

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“Not really, as long as we keep winning them, it’s something we can tolerate,” he said. “I’m personally not a huge fan of it, but they’ve been fun. It’s been great to see some of the creativity our guys have shown on the offensive end.”

Two nights after Filip Hronek had a highlight-reel shootout goal against the Texas Stars (video below), Luke Esposito pulled off a similar move Friday night (1:50 mark of above video).

The Griffins were 3-6 in shootouts before this recent stretch, and Nelson said he figured out the key to winning the skill competition.

“I think the coach is just putting the right players out there,” he joked. “At the start of the year, we were throwing out certain guys and we just weren’t scoring. But now, I have an idea who feels confident in the shootout.”

So, McCollum isn’t sick of the shootouts, yet. How about the coach?

“Not when you win them, you get sick of them when you lose,” Nelson said.

Street, however, had a resounding “yes” when asked if he was sick of going to shootouts.

“It’s an extra period of hockey. At least we are coming out on the right side of a lot of them,” he said. “It’s getting a bit old.”

Sulak’s status

Defenseman Libor Sulak, who was reassigned to the Griffins on March 23, hasn’t suited up for Grand Rapids and won’t for at least a week, according to Nelson.

“He’s going to start skating Monday,” Nelson said. “It’s going to be maybe another week to 10 days before he has a chance to play.”

The 24-year-old Sulak, who last played for the Finnish Elite League’s Lahti Pelicans, led his defensemen teammates in scoring, with a career-high 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) in 42 games.

Libor Sulak: Your New Favorite Red Wing

The 6-foot-2, 207-pound native of Pelhrimov, Czech Republic, also has experience in the Czech league, scoring four points (two goals, two assists) in 32 games during the 2013-14 season.