0Taro Hirose
Photo Credit: Jenae Anderson, Access Hockey MI

Griffins put themselves ‘back in contention’ after successful homestand; Hirose fills playmaking need

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Grand Rapids Griffins wrapped up an eight-game homestand on Saturday with a 3-1 loss to the San Diego Gulls.

However, going 5-1-0-2 during their eight-game homestand has propelled them from eighth in the Central Division to a tie for the fourth and final playoff spot.

“Pretty happy with it,” captain Matthew Ford told Wings Nation of the homestand. “Bitter right now with the result (Saturday) going into the break. If you look at the stretch we’ve been on, we’ve put ourselves back in the mix. I believe we were five games below .500, we were in eighth place. Now, we’re in the mix for a playoff spot.”

Griffins coach Ben Simon knows part of being an AHL coach is dealing with call-ups from the parent organization. The second-year coach experienced that quite a bit since December, as there were 32 transactions between call-ups and reassigns.

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Simon said having a consistent lineup during the homestand has been key in moving up in the standings.

“There wasn’t continuity from game to game,” he said. “We were missing some big pieces. We got some guys back healthy, and we’ve had a little bit more chemistry or ability to develop chemistry because you’ve had the core group of guys.”

The Griffins beat the Gulls 4-3 in overtime on Friday to extend their point streak to eight games, dating back to a 3-2 win against the Milwaukee Admirals on Jan. 8.

After 46 games, Grand Rapids (20-20-2-4) is tied with the Texas Stars at 46 points, but the Stars have two games in hand. The Chicago Wolves have 47 points in third place, with the Iowa Wild (58 points) and the Admirals (68 points) rounding out the top of the division.

“To be in the mix every night is a big thing for us,” Taro Hirose said. “We can’t get blown out, can’t afford to give up points, especially in our division; it’s so tight right now.”

The Griffins controlled most of the play Saturday, outshooting the Gulls 39-19. Grand Rapids scored its lone goal on the power play when Hirose found Matt Puempel on a cross-ice feed to beat Anthony Stolarz. Grand Rapids was 1 for 7 with the man advantage.

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“Stolarz played well, so you have to tip your hat to him there,” Simon said.

Grand Rapids native Brent Gates Jr. scored the game-winning goal for the Gulls.

“Can’t really put it into words, honestly,” he said in a radio interview afterward. “I wanted to come here and see friends, see family and enjoy a trip to Grand Rapids and hopefully get into a game.

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“I got into a game and I got to put in the game-winner. It’s super exciting and I’m sure my family is going to be excited and it was really cool to do it in front of you guys.”

The Griffins will get a six-day break with the AHL All-Star Skills Competition on Sunday and the All-Star Challenge on Monday before traveling to Iowa to face the Wild on Friday. Simon said the break couldn’t have come at a better time.

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“Check out for a little bit, get your rest,” he said. “We’ve been riding these guys pretty hard. They’ve done a pretty good job, so credit to them; they deserve a couple of days off.”

Hirose gaining confidence

After scoring two goals and adding five assists in 27 games for the Detroit Red Wings this season, the organization opted to send Hirose down to Grand Rapids on Dec. 3.

The 23-year-old, who signed with the Red Wings last season after completing his junior season with Michigan State, had a goal and seven assists in 10 games in 2018-19.

He made the Red Wings out of training camp this season but couldn’t replicate last season’s production.

In 21 games with the Griffins, Hirose has 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) and is second on the team in points per game (0.86) only trailing Chris Terry‘s 0.93.

“I think there’s definitely parts of my game I want to continue to keep working on,” Hirose said. “Just gaining that confidence to hold on to the puck and make plays. Being good with the puck and helping the team win.”

During their power plays on Saturdays, the Griffins deployed Hirose on the left half-wall, where he looked for cross-ice feeds or opened the ice up with passes pack to the point. It’s a spot that serves Hirose well, being the great passer that he is.

“He’s been great,” Ford said of Hirose. “A void that he probably filled with his playmaking ability. If you look at our lineup, especially up front, we have a lot of shoot-first mentality guys. Not to say he can’t put the puck in the net, but I would say his playmaking abilities is … part of the reason that we’re having success.”

Added Simon: “He’s been fine. He’s learning as a rookie, obviously, he’s a little bit older than your typical other rookies in this class, but he’s been doing a lot of good things, too. He’s very, very cagey with the puck. He’s got great calmness, great poise with the puck.

“He’s gotta make sure he’s consistently competing on a nightly basis.”