Griffins undeterred by opening-round playoff format

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Some might say it would have been in the Grand Rapids Griffins’ best interest to lose their regular season finale on Saturday against the Cleveland Monsters.

The Griffins already knew their first-round opponent would be the Manitoba Moose. However, a loss on Saturday could have bumped them down to third place in the Central Division if the Moose were to win Sunday’s game against Chicago.

A lower seeding in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, which is a five-game series, means the lower-seeded team gets the first two home games, with the next three home games awarded to the higher-seeded team. Due to the long travel time between Grand Rapids and Winnipeg, the league opted to use the 2-3 format rather than the conventional 2-2-1.

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However, the Griffins won their regular season finale 6-4 to clinch second place in the Central Division and will begin their Calder Cup title defense at 3 p.m. April 21 at Manitoba.

The Griffins said they aren’t concerned with starting the first two games on the road.

“We’re fine with that,” Brian Lashoff told Wings Nation. “We’ve been a good team on the road all season. I think we’ve done a good job of playing a simple game on the road. It’s a building we feel comfortable playing in. We have no problem starting on the road and getting a good start there. Getting home ice is definitely huge going into the first round. We like the way we have been playing on the road. So, we’re excited.”

Grand Rapids actually did slightly better on the road this season (22-10-1-5 on the road vs. 20-15-1-2 at home) and had a lot of success against the Moose, going 6-2-0-0 in winning the season series.

Coach Todd Nelson echoed Lashoff’s feelings about starting the series on the road.

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“I feel good,” Nelson said. “I think in the 2-3 format, I don’t think there’s really any home-ice advantage, to be quite honest. Even though we have home ice, we have to take care of business there. But if we don’t, we have three games at home where we can take care of business. But our team has played exceptional on the road all year. We’ve had success in that building. So, we are looking forward to it.”

Is there any added pressure to win at least one game on the road to avoid a situation in which the Griffins have to win three straight to win the series?

“No, not at all,” Nelson said. “Not with this group; they’ve been through a lot this year. To have the record that we’ve had the last 47 games, I think it was 32-10-1-4, so our guys are playing good hockey; they’re playing with confidence. We feel confident going into Winnipeg.”

Hronek ties team record

Filip Hronek had a memorable night, securing his first four-point game (one goal, three assists) and tying Robbie Russo for most points in a season by a Griffins rookie defenseman with 39 (11 goals, 28 assists) in 67 games. Russo had 39 points (five goals, 34 assists) in 71 games during the 2015-16 season.

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Hronek’s goal displayed his aggressive nature, as he, from the blue line, jumped on a loose puck that squirted out to the top of the left circle, deked around a couple of defenders and squeaked a backhander past Matiss Kivlenieks to give the Griffins a 1-0 lead just 44 seconds into Saturday’s game.

“He’s just playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Nelson said of the 20-year-old defenseman. “Over the course of the season, his decision-making has gotten better, where he learned when to jump up and when not to jump up. Early in the year, when he was jumping up in the play, he would get caught, all of a sudden there’s an odd-man rush against. Now, he’s making the right decisions. He’s been playing very well.”

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Hronek was quick to downplay his historic night.

“I had good luck, probably,” he said. “That’s it. I didn’t do anything special. I feel comfortable now. I feel like coaches trust me more.”

Lashoff has taken Hronek under his wing and said he has been impressed with the Czech’s development and willingness to learn.

“He’s done a really good job,” Lashoff said. “He’s a guy that is always asking questions, he wants to watch video, he wants to learn, he’s always talking on the ice. He’s been a guy that I’ve enjoyed working with all season.”

Sulak needs work on ‘little things’

Libor Sulak, the undrafted defenseman from the Czech Republic the Detroit Red Wings signed in May, played his second AHL game Saturday, registering an assist on one of Colin Campbell’s three goals.

Much like Hronek, Sulak plays with an aggressive style, and his assist was a result of stepping up to pick up a loose puck, firing a shot low to the far side, which allowed Campbell to pick up the rebound and score. Sulak has two assists in two games this season.

Libor Sulak: Your New Favorite Red Wing

However, he also had a glaring mistake that led to a goal against. Sulak attempted to make a big hit in the neutral zone, but the puck squirted out to another Monsters player, leading to a 2-on-1 against his defense partner, Dylan McIlrath.

“He skates well. There’s work that has to be done,” Nelson said. “It’s just little things. Better pro habits. On the one goal against (Saturday), he didn’t have to stand up in the neutral zone. Those are mistakes everybody makes, especially when it’s your first couple of games in the new organization. I get it. He skates well. He made a nice play on the one goal for where it was a partial break and he shot far pad to create a rebound, and Campbell was able to score. I saw a lot of good things, and there’s a lot of things that we can definitely work on.”

Nelson said he originally wanted to pair Sulak with Hronek, but after discussion with scouts and front office members, he thought two aggressive defensemen on the same pairing might not be in his best interest.

“Sulak, he likes to get up ice quite a bit,” Nelson said. “I had him paired with Filip on the board. But then as I got talking to some scouts and (Griffins general manager Ryan Martin), Sulak can be a bit of a maverick. Well, Fil’s up the ice a lot of the time, too. I didn’t think it was cool to have two defensemen behind the offensive zone goal. So, I made that switch.”

2018 Calder Cup Playoffs

Central Division Semifinals (Best-of-Five)

Game 1: April 21 at Manitoba, 3 p.m.

Game 2: April 22 at Manitoba, 3 p.m.

Game 3: April 25 at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.

*Game 4: April 26 at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.

*Game 5: April 30 at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.

* If necessary

All times EDT