The Grand Rapids Griffins have a tough schedule this weekend, with three games in three nights. They kicked it off by facing two very familiar teams, the Iowa Wild and Milwaukee Admirals, on home ice. Both teams were very accustomed to each other, which made for some interesting games. The home game stand ended within a split. Grand Rapids dropped the first contest against the Wild but pulled off an incredible win against Milwaukee.
As always, there’s plenty to discuss in hockey, and Grand Rapids gives me plenty to think about.
Players of the Games: Axel Holmstrom & Turner Elson
Axel Holmstrom has been slowly pushing his way to the forefront of everyone’s attention. His rookie year sidelined him with injury and he described last season as a “comeback” for him. Headed into this season, he told WingsNation he feels like he’s getting stronger and overall, better. I’d have to agree with him. In Friday’s showdown against the Iowa Wild (and Saturday against the Admirals) he was an absolute powerhouse. He scored the opening goal on Friday as well as making a timely save that nearly squeezed by Griffin’s goaltender, Patrik Rybar, just as it was inching to the goal line.
I’ve been a big fan of Turner Elson for a while now (clearly). His style is driven and he’s got one of the best dispositions on and off the ice. Elson was a massive impact player in both home games. He was credited with an assist during Friday’s game-tying goal by Chris Terry. On top of that, he was the driving force for numerous rushes, the top power play line as well as making several critical plays in the neutral zone. He’s consistently one of the hardest workers on the ice and that really showed this weekend.
Play of the Games: Holmstrom’s Save & McIlrath’s Game Winner
Axel Holmstrom is no goaltender, but he made what could have been the save of the game against the Wild. Rybar got his first home-ice start, and despite his best efforts, the defense struggled to keep pucks away from him. Holmstrom was right where he needed to be in one of those moments. Taking a strange bouncing puck, Rybar made the initial stop but allowed it to squeeze through his leg pads. Holmstrom, standing just to the right of the goal crease, reached his stick in and scooped the puck away just as it was getting to the goal line. Though they dropped the game eventually, but Holmstrom’s ability to react ensured that he not only had Rybar’s back (literally) but was very aware of the puck’s placement.
Dylan McIlrath’s game-winning goal against Milwaukee was perfectly timed and much needed. Having the game at one late in the third period, the tension mounted for both teams. The Admirals entered the Van Andel on Saturday as the division leaders and feeling confident. Grand Rapids showed overnight improvement from the night before, and the pressure applied throughout the game proved it. McIlrath received a feed at the top of the right circle and hammered it home. What has become his signature shot has been a source of frustration for Dylan recently. Finally netting that goal has not only lifted the burden of being yet goal-less but will boost the team’s overall confidence.
Regrettable: Power Play Production – or Lack Thereof
Grand Rapids is not doing well on the power play. Their special teams aren’t so special at the moment. Head Coach, Ben Simon, described it as being the “elephant in the room” that is needing to be addressed. Having Colin Campbell out due to an ongoing concussion has unfortunately impacted the team much more than they originally seemed to think. On top of Campbell having missed every game so far, star Center Dominic Turgeon has been experiencing a drought on the power play and otherwise.
In the last three games, the Griffins own the unfortunate 0-14 record in the last three games for power plays, according to the Grand Rapids Griffins press release. Obviously not good, or anywhere close to it, the Griffins need to drastically step up their power play efforts.
Quotable: Locker Room Talk
“You’re disappointed to start. The coaching staff has done a really great job down here (AHL), though I don’t know them as well as I have in the past. I’m comfortable in the room, knowing some of the guys. I’m kind of taking on a leadership role myself… If I can be a vocal leader (to the young guys) and lead by example, I’m willing to do that.” – Joe Hicketts on being sent down by Detroit.
“I thought we did a great job taking away time and space (from Iowa)… we talked about holding the puck down low and funneling more pucks to the net. I thought we did a tremendous job of coming out and doing that.” – Head Coach Ben Simon following Friday’s loss to Iowa.
“Its easier for every individual when we play as a team. We put up over 60 shots in these (last) two games. For me, I feel fresh out there and I feel good. Last season was a comeback season for me… I’m just looking to step up the game… looking to develop everyday.” – Axel Holmstrom on his performance throughout the weekend and going forward
Keys for the Future: Power Play & Production
Obviously, the Griffins’ power play is struggling majorly, as I said. Their top guys need to make contact with the net and not waste the opportunities. Rebounds are being missed, shots are errant or the puck is held onto too long – wasting time. Though the team knows this, as does the coaching staff, it’s up to the guys to actually work that out on the ice. Saturday’s top power play line was dynamite of had nothing to show for it. Going forward, that needs to change. They have some of the best scorers in the league on their team who aren’t scoring.
Production ties right into that. As I said, their scorers aren’t scoring. They need to find their mojo. Guys like Chris Terry and Carter Camper are registering at least a point a night and tearing it up, however, the other skaters like Dominic Turgeon and much-anticipated Filip Zadina, are not playing how everyone knows they’re able to. Turgeon is off to a slow and frustrating start with only one point in ten games. On the ice, it’s obvious he’s irritated with himself. He’s got to shake that off and just push through it or he’ll drop lower in the lines than he ever anticipated he’d be.
Zadina is a fantastic player, I am not bashing that in the least. However, he is capable of so much more! He’s growing in confidence, he’s learning to control his game in a much faster league, but there’s more in there that he just hasn’t tapped into yet. He’s close – dangerously close if you’re the opposing team, but he’s got to keep his head focused.