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Veterans breathe life into Griffins to stave off elimination

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Grand Rapids Griffins came into Game 4 of the Central Division semifinals best-of-five series Thursday down 2-1 to the Manitoba Moose and needing a win to continue defending their Calder Cup title.

It was a game that lent itself to the Griffins coming out guns a-blazing.

Their backs against the wall.

Playing in front of the home crowd — a home crowd they never lost in front of during their entire playoff run last season.

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A fast start would set the tone for the rest of the game and, perhaps, the final game of the series should they win.

Instead, they were held to just three shots in the first period, one game after putting up 48 in their Game 3 loss.

“Too often, when your backs are against the wall, you’re nervous to lose,” Matt Ford told Wings Nation. “You’re too worried about what the result might be.”

Both teams certainly seemed nervous to lose, although the Moose controlled most of the play in the first period, recording eight shots.

Part of the Griffins’ lack of offense was explained by the four penalties they took in the first, including a goalie interference penalty on Jared Coreau and a too many men on the ice penalty.

The Griffins escaped the period tied 0-0, probably the best-case scenario for them considering how poorly they played.

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On offense, Grand Rapids couldn’t figure out the Moose defense, struggling to get any quality shots in the slot and being forced to the outside.

Even the fans lost interest.

The crowd of 7,357 at Van Andel Arena didn’t have much to cheer about. They should have, as it could have been the last time they see a Griffins game until October.

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The most noise the fans made, save for the roars during the many after-whistle scrums, came during a stoppage of play when a girl denied a guy who tried to kiss her on the kiss cam.

Ben Street admitted it probably wasn’t an exciting start for fans.

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“I think both teams were trying to make sure they weren’t the first to make the mistake,” he said. “There was a pretty big feeling-out, probably for the first 20-plus minutes of the game. Kinda, slow methodical not really exciting game. When it gets like that, you rely pretty heavily on your goalie because you’re not creating a whole lot. I thought (Coreau) did a really good job to keep us in it when things weren’t really clicking for us that well.”

The second period trudged along, with the Griffins unable to break through, and coach Todd Nelson echoed Ford’s comments on both teams playing not to lose.

“I was very surprised with our start,” Nelson said. “It seemed like both teams were back in Game 1 in the first period just kinda feeling out each other. It had a weird feeling to it. I didn’t like it because in those games, you just never know, something can happen a goal goes in off a skate or whatever. I think Jared played very well, obviously.

“Anytime a team faces going home for the summer, you expect more jump out of your guys. Maybe it was from fatigue from last night. Maybe the raw emotion from the game last night.”

Game 3 was a bit chippy to say the least, as five players received 10-minute misconducts, including a game misconduct for Manitoba’s Michael Spacek.

Even Filip Hronek, who led the defense corps. in points (11-28—39) even got in on the action, exchanging punches with two Moose players.

Finally, at the 18:25 mark of the second period, Ford gave the team and, consequently, the fans life.

After picking up a loose puck in the neutral zone, Robbie Russo made a nice cross-ice feed to Ford, who wristed a shot past Eric Comrie, breaking the scoreless tie.

The relief washed over Ford, as he celebrated with a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump.

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“When Ford scored, I think we started to play with a bit more ease,” Nelson said.

Just 1:15 later, Ben Street kept the crowd going. A slap shot from the left faceoff circle slid under Comrie’s left leg, and the Griffins found themselves in control.

Brian Lashoff added an empty-net goal in the third period, and the Griffins forced a decisive Game 5 Monday night at Van Andel Arena.

Interestingly enough, the Griffins have won their last three winner-take-all games, all at home: May 4, 2013: a 7-0 win against Houston in the Western Conference quarterfinals; June 5, 2013: a 5-4 win against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference final; and May 3, 2015: a 3-1 win against Toronto in the Western Conference quarterfinal.

Coreau joked he would have been able to stop Ford’s shot, Ford thought otherwise.

“No, I score on him every day in practice,” the captain said. “We have a friendly banter. Too often, when I do score on him, he says I’m too close. So, I don’t think he had a chance.”

Ford and Street, former University of Wisconsin teammates from 2005-08, lead the Griffins in scoring during the playoffs, Street with four goals and three assists in four games, one point off the league high, and Ford with two goals and three assists in four games.

“Street, he’s such a good center. He’s so good in the D-zone, offensive zone, every zone,” Coreau said. “He’s like a bulldog out there, he never stops. Matt Ford is a good leader, good captain and was good in the locker room (Thursday).”

Street also led the team in scoring during the regular season (21-44—65 in 73 games), so it’s not as if this scoring surge is an accident.

And the Griffins will continue to rely heavily on Street, Ford and Eric Tangradi until the likes of Matt Puempel (no goals, three assists in four playoff games) and Evgeny Svechnikov (one goal in four playoff games) can find their scoring touch. Of course, with no Matt Lorito or Dominic Turgeon, the Griffins already were facing an uphill battle for depth scoring.