GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — To say the playoff race is tight in the AHL’s Central Division is an understatement.
The Milwaukee Admirals (86 points) and the Iowa Wild (80) should have the first two spots locked up. But after that, it’s a five-team race for the final two playoff spots.
After losing four in a row from Feb. 22-29. The Grand Rapids Griffins found themselves at 59 points, one point behind the San Antonio Rampage and in fourth place in the division.
After Saturday night’s 3-0 win against the Rockford IceHogs, the Griffins are in third place at 63 points and two points ahead of the fourth-place IceHogs. The Rampage are in fifth place with 60 points and three games in hand on the Griffins. The Rampage play Sunday against the Admirals.
“It’s a weird year for this division,” Calvin Pickard told Wings Nation. “We can’t really look at the standings. Everybody is playing everybody. Teams are winning all the time, and we just have to take care of our own business like we did (Saturday).”
The Griffins are just four points ahead of the Texas Stars in seventh place, who have two games in hand. A couple of losses, and the Griffins could easily find themselves near the bottom of the standings.
Pickard, who made 35 saves in recording his third shutout of the season, faced an onslaught during the first two periods, recording 28 saves. That onslaught included killing off essentially six consecutive minutes of penalties in the second period, as Evgeny Svechnikov was called for a high-sticking double minor and Turner Elson had a tripping call as soon as Svechnikov’s penalty was over.
Coach Ben Simon was impressed with the PK but also noted how being short-handed for six minutes affected ice time for other players.
“We can’t put ourselves in a situation where we are killing, essentially, six minutes in a row,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, it disrupts the flow of the game. We had some of our other players that aren’t playing now. They’re getting cold. It doesn’t bode well for the lines and the chemistry and the flow of the game.”
The Griffins were shut out by the IceHogs 4-0 on Friday night, which put the teams in a tie for third place coming into Saturday’s game.
“(Saturday) was a big game, it was a big response from us,” Pickard said. “We didn’t play a very good game (Friday) night. They kinda took it to us for most of it. It was a good opportunity to get right back at it at home, big crowd against the same team.
“At the end of the night, it’s a 3-0 win. It looks convincing, but it was a tight game all the way through.”
FINAL: Griffins 3, IceHogs 0
— Grand Rapids Griffins (@griffinshockey) March 8, 2020
It was Puempel’s 16th of the season, which only trails Chris Terry (21) — who also scored Saturday — for second on the team in goals.
“On that play, guys are always coming out, so you have to shoot through the players — not really at the goalie,” Puempel said. “You just try to find a lane to get it through the best you can. And if you can’t see the goalie, he probably can’t see the puck, so that’s kinda the thought process.”
Terry’s power-play goal gave the Griffins some breathing room late in the third period, and Taro Hirose added another insurance marker, his fifth of the season, just 51 seconds later.
Simon said there were adjustments made Friday to attempt to negate Rockford’s speed and the game plan for Saturday was to be more aggressive.
“They’ve got some pretty fast forwards,” he said. “(The changes) didn’t really work out as we thought it would on Friday night. We were a little bit more aggressive in the O-zone and the neutral zone, and I think it paid dividends come the third period.”
The Griffins are off until Wednesday when they host the Wild, but the IceHogs face the Chicago Wolves on Sunday, and with the Rampage playing the Admirals, the IceHogs could be in sixth place or in a tie for third on Monday morning.
“We didn’t fall behind (in the standings), so it’s definitely a step forward with the performance,” Puempel said.