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Barracuda falls short in AHL’s Western Conference Finals

 

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The American Hockey League’s (AHL) Calder Cup Western Conference Finals between the San Jose Barracuda and Grand Rapids Griffins appeared to be a toss-up on paper prior to the first puck drop in the best-of-seven series.

Both San Jose and Grand Rapids entered the conference finals as near mirror images of themselves. The teams were loaded with NHL prospects (the Barracuda from the San Jose Sharks and the Griffins from the Detroit Red Wings), a cadre of veterans and a fast-paced game centered on puck possession.

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Both teams demonstrated a knack for scoring — the Cuda averaged 3.41 goals per game in the regular season while Grand Rapids averaged 3.30.

Both teams also displayed a mastery of special teams play. The Griffins ranked first in the 30-team AHL during the regular season with a 24.4 power play percentage; the Cuda ranked second at 23.8 percent.

Speed and skill proved to be a lethal combination for both teams through the opening two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs.

But only one team could advance past the third round.

That team proved to be Central Division champion Grand Rapids after defeating the Pacific Division champion Barracuda four games to one.

Over the course of the five games, the Griffins proved they were the better team — or, at least, the team that executed better in key situations.

“We, as a team, didn’t play the way we’re capable of bringing it,” San Jose head coach Roy Sommer told the media following Game 1 in the series, a 3-1 Grand Rapids victory that set the tone for the series.

Though there were a few bright spots for the Cuda in the remaining four games, Sommer’s remark fairly summed up the disappointing showing for his team in the series.

Having wrestled home ice advantage from San Jose by winning the opening game in the series, the Griffins swept their three games at home to claim the Robert W. Clarke trophy as AHL Western Conference champions and, in the process, embark on a quest to win their second Calder Cup championship trophy since joining the league in 2001.

Grand Rapids will face the Syracuse Crunch in a rematch of the 2013 Calder Cup Finals in which the Griffins captured in six games. Syracuse advanced to face Grand Rapids in the 2017 Calder Cup Finals after defeating the Providence Bruins four games to one to win the Eastern Conference championship.

A pair of Californians will be making the trek to the Calder Cup Finals with the Griffins: Whittier native Mitch Callahan and West Hills native Matt Ford.

Callahan is one of three remaining players off Grand Rapids’ 2013 Calder Cup championship squad.

“Look forward to doing it again,” Callahan told MLive.com following the conclusion of the Western Conference Finals.

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Grand Rapids will host the opening two games in the best-of-seven Calder Cup Finals June 2-3. All games in the series will be streamed live free of charge, the AHL announced on May 30. Fans should visit www.theahl.com or ahllive.com for more information.

The Griffins advance to the Calder Cup Finals with a red-hot 11-2 playoff record and seven consecutive home ice victories.

San Jose, which recorded the second best winning percentage (.699) in the 30-team league during the regular season, ended its playoff run with a final 8-7 playoff record. The Cuda’s third-round playoff showing remains the best in franchise history.

Best in the West

The San Jose-Grand Rapids series appeared closer than the eventual outcome. Four of the five games were decided by two goals, with two of those games settled by empty net goals.

However, the Griffins opened the gap in Game 4 with a decisive 6-2 win on May 26 and, despite a valiant effort in Game 5 on the part of the Barracuda, Grand Rapids sealed the series with a 4-2 victory on May 27.

After the teams earned a split in the opening two games at the SAP Center May 20-21, Sommer suggested the series might go the distance.

But that did not prove to be the case.

With the parent Red Wings missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 25 years, the Grand Rapids roster was loaded for bear. The Griffins rolled onto the ice with 18 players with playoff experience. By comparison, the Barracuda fielded 10 rookies and had only one player who had previously played in a conference championship series.

The San Jose team was pushed throughout the series to match Grand Rapid’s competition level.

Game 1 proved to be a showcase for the Griffins’ two California natives as Callahan and Ford celebrated their Golden State homecoming with one goal each in Grand Rapids’ series opening victory played in front of 6,496 fans, one of the larger AHL crowds to fill the SAP Center this season.

The Cuda hurt itself on the scoreboard by going scoreless in six power play opportunities. That fact was not lost on anyone in the San Jose camp.

“It could have won us the game if we got a couple goals on the power play,” San Jose forward Barclay Goodrow said in summing up the frustration on the team.

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Sommer, the AHL’s 2016-17 Coach of the Year, admitted disappointment with his team following the Game 1 setback, particularly with the performance of younger players in the lineup. The secondary scoring that had carried his team past San Diego in the Pacific Division Finals didn’t come through in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Griffins put the Barracuda in an early 2-0 hole on goals by Callahan and Ben Street, both assisted by Eric Tangardi. Kevin Labanc notched San Jose’s lone goal at 10:34 of the first period, assisted by Ryan Carpenter, to make the score 2-1. Ford added an insurance goal on the power play at 10:58 of the third period.

The point earned by Carpenter was his league-leading 14th of the playoffs.

Personal highlights in the game belonged to Cahallan and Ford, who were playing in their first postseason game in their home state.

“It’s always exciting to score in the playoffs,” explained Callahan, who was selected as the 180th player in the 2009 NHL Draft by Detroit. “It was my first time with the guys out here in California, a lot of family and friends (were here). I was fortunate to get a goal. I’m glad we won.

“The first five minutes we kind of sat back on our heels. We got the first goal and I think momentum shifted to our side and we carried it the whole game.”

Grand Rapids, which improved its postseason record to 8-1, finished with a 28-27 shot advantage.

In post-game comments to the media, Sommer said the Griffins “didn’t see the Barracuda team that we are.”

Grand Rapids apparently saw the Cuda team its coach was referencing in Game 2: a 4-2 San Jose victory.

The power play had been a central theme all season long for the Barracuda, which scored seven power play goals in 17 opportunities (a very healthy 41.2 percent conversion rate) during the division finals. The Cuda struck three times on five man-advantage chances in Game 2 while tacking on an empty net goal to even the conference finals at a win apiece.

It seemed just like old times.

Julius Bergman, Carpenter and Joakim Ryan each scored power play goals while Goodrow added an empty-netter with 1:06 remaining in the game.

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Troy Grosenick, the AHL’s 2016-17 Goaltender of the Year, stopped 33 of 35 shots in Game 2 after making 25 stops on 28 shots in Game 1.

The hosts went on the offensive in Game 2 by compiling a 40-35 shot advantage, including a 20-11 edge in the first period. Grosenick stopped all 11 shots he faced in the third period to lead the team to victory.

San Jose stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first 10:44 of the game on goals by Bergman and Carpenter.

Tomas Nosek halved the Barracuda lead late in the first period and Ford picked up his second goal in the series, his sixth of the playoffs, at 14:38 of the second period to tie the score, 2-2. However, Ryan scored just 50 seconds later to restore the Barracuda to a 3-2 lead.

Goodrow, assisted by Carpenter, sealed the win for San Jose with an empty-net goal.

Ryan (first star) and Carpenter (second star) each finished the game with one goal and one assist while defenseman Tim Heed picked up two assists. The game attracted 5,719 fans to the SAP Center.

“They earned their way to the conference final and so did we, so we’re both good teams,” Goodrow offered in a post-game chat with the media. “It just comes down to who does a better job of executing.

“If we don’t get those (power play) goals (in Game 2), we don’t win the game. When the power play is going, we’re winning hockey games. When it’s not going, it’s kind of a struggle for us.”

Sommer noted his team had fed off power play success all season long. He said his team “didn’t win any races” and was “chasing jerseys” in Game 1.

At the opposite end of the ice, Ford, who played with Bakersfield last season and was thus very familiar with the Barracuda, expressed disappointment his team failed to sweep the opening two games in the series.

“We had a big opportunity (in Game 2) that was lost,” Ford said. “It was a one-goal game (prior to Goodrow’s empty-net goal). We had our opportunities but we didn’t play our best hockey.

“Before coming out here, if we thought we could have the split, if we had home ice advantage heading home for three straight in Grand Rapids, we’d take that. But it’s tough to swallow. We kind of squandered a big opportunity.”

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Game 3, played May 24 in Grand Rapids, continued to prove just how even the teams were. San Jose carried a 2-1 lead into the third period on goals by John McCarthy and Carpenter. The teams were separated by just one shot at the end of two periods — 26 to 25 in favor of the host Griffins.

The Cuda had not lost a game all season when leading after the second period (39-0-2), but the team’s otherwise strong performance in Game 3 went for naught after host Grand Rapids rallied with three goals in the final period. The Griffins scored one goal on a power play and scored another into an empty net to skate off with a dramatic 4-2 come-from-behind victory in front of 6,009 fans at Van Andel Arena.

Matt Lorito, one of 13 Griffins to receive call-ups to Detroit this season, got the Grand Rapids comeback started when he netted a power play goal at 6:40, assisted by Martin Frk and Street, to tie the game 2-2.

Callahan, one of his team’s go-to veterans, scored his second goal in the series at 16:20 of the third period to push his team in front 3-2. It proved to be the game-winning goal. Tangardi had taken the original shot and the puck wound up under a sprawling Grosenick at the side of the net before Callahan, chasing down the play from behind the net, managed to tap the dislodged puck into the open far corner.

Nosek added an empty net goal with 59 seconds to play in regulation to cap the whirlwind series of events.

“I was fortunate to get the rebound,” explained Callahan, who earned first star of the game honors. “I thought the ref might have blown the whistle but it was a little loose. The goalie kind of moved his shoulder some and made it a little more loose. I just had the empty net. It was laying there for me.”

Grand Rapids out-shot San Jose 16-8 in the third period to claim a 42-33 edge in shots for the game. Grosenick, who earned third star honors, stopped 38 of 41 shots (.927 save percentage) while Jared Coreau picked up the win after making stops on 31 of 33 shots (.939 save percentage).

The win, which extended the Griffins’ home ice record during the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs to 5-0, upped the team’s overall postseason record to 9-2 while the Barracuda dropped to 8-5.

“Game 1 we played really well – it was probably the best game we played all playoffs,” Callahan explained in recounting the momentum shifts in the series. “Game 2 we didn’t do so well. We knew (in Game 3) we had to come out strong and match their intensity because we knew they would be hungry as well. I thought our guys responded well from the previous game. We bounced back.”

The charismatic Callahan said his team played to its strength in grabbing the comeback victory to swing the series in its favor. “We know if we can keep the puck in their zone that not too many teams can handle our size and strength,” he said. “We’ve got to use that to our advantage.”

By sweeping the three games against San Jose on its home ice, Grand Rapids had the chance to wrap up a trip to the Calder Cup Finals in front of its fans. That fact was not lost on anyone in the Griffins’ camp.

“We’ve got to take every ounce of it,” Callahan stressed in a post-game interview. “We’ve got to utilize it and ride the momentum.”

The Griffins continued to ride the momentum of home ice advantage with a 6-2 win in Game 4.

The Cuda scored first on a penalty shot by Colin Blackwell at 13:57 of the first period. But things unraveled from there as Grand Rapids took firm control of the game with four second-period goals.

San Jose closed the gap to 4-2 on a power-play goal by Adam Helewka at the 2:58 mark of the third period. But the hosts responded just 50 seconds later to lead 5-2 and tacked on a late power play goal to finish with the four-goal victory in front of 8,707 fans at Van Andel Arena.

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Street, Nosek, Tangardi, Frk, Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeny Svechnikov each potted goals for the winners. Callahan picked up two assists to give him four points (two goals, two assists) in the opening four games of the conference finals.

Ryan and Heed picked up assists on Helewka’s goal. Grosenick stopped 30 of 36 shots he faced. It was the first time an opponent scored six goals on the Cuda netminder since Nov. 5.

Coreau stopped 26 of 28 shots to up his playoff record to 6-0. Grand Rapids out-shot San Jose 36-28, including a blistering 19-5 edge in the second period.

The Griffins finished Game 4 with eight power play opportunities, cashing in on two of them, while the Barracuda finished 1-for-6 with the man advantage.

Game 4 featured hard-hitting action both ways. The officiating crew whistled 31 infractions totaling 108 minutes in penalties, including 61 minutes charged against San Jose.

Callahan, who has logged more than 400 AHL games with Grand Rapids since first joining the team in 2011, said his team could not just “come to the rink (for Game 5) thinking we’re going to win.”

“They’ll come out strongly like they did in Game 2 in San Jose,” he told reporters. “They’re a good team. We’ve got to match their intensity and out-compete them in the first five minutes. We have home ice, but we have to go out and work.”

The Barracuda indeed did all what it could do in an attempt to stave off playoff elimination by firing 41 shots at Coreau in Game 5. However, the Pacific Division champions could muster only two goals against the stingy Grand Rapids netminder and ultimately fell by a score of 4-2 in front of 8,876 energized fans at Van Andel Arena.

Brian Lashoff, another of the three remaining players off Grand Rapids’ 2013 Calder Cup championship team, helped get the home fans buzzing when he scored just 24 seconds into the game. Ford then potted his third goal of the series at the 16:11 mark of the first period to double the Griffins’ lead.

Timo Meier scored his fourth goal of the playoffs at 1:02 of the second period, assisted by Buddy Robinson, to make the score 2-1. But San Jose waited much too long to make a comeback in the game.

The hosts piled up two more goals before the Barracuda could get back on the scoreboard. Lorito scored a power play goal at 11:42 of the second period to up the Grand Rapids lead to 3-1 and added an even-strength goal at 4:53 of the third period to put the Griffins on top 4-1.

San Jose piled up a 17-7 edge in shots in the third period but could only manage a 1-1 standoff on the scoreboard.

Daniel O’Regan, the AHL’s 2016-17 Rookie of the Year, notched his fourth goal of the playoffs at 15:29, assisted by Nick DeSimone and Dan Kelly.

That would end the scoring in the game – and the season for the Barracuda.

San Jose out-shot Grand Rapids 41-26 to compound the team’s frustrating performance in the series. The Cuda finished 0-for-4 on the power play in Game 5 and a miserable 1-for-12 in the three games played in Michigan.

Grosenick allowed four goals on 26 shots in Game 5 and 10 goals on 62 shots in the final two games of the series (.839 save percentage).

Coreau remained magnificent between the pipes for Grand Rapids in Game 5 with 39 saves on 41 shots (.951 save percentage). He finished the conference finals with an outstanding 2.01 GAA and .940 save percentage.

Grosenick was unable to match his regular season superlatives (2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage) with a 3.73 GAA and .876 save percentage in the conference finals. He finished 8-7 overall in the Calder Cup playoffs with two shutouts, a 2.69 GAA and .910 save percentage in 15 games.

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For those on the watch list, both Grosenick and Coreau are unrestricted free agents at the end of this season.

Carpenter, who saw action in 11 NHL games this season, set a Sharks AHL affiliate playoff scoring record with 17 points (nine goals, eight assists).

Ryan followed Carpenter with 11 points (four goals, seven assists). Goodrow (five goals, five assists) and Heed (three goals, seven assists) each collected 10 points in 15 playoff games while Robinson recorded nine points (four goals, five assists).

Series notebook

• Street collected one goal and one assist while Tangardi picked up two assists for Grand Rapids in Game 1 while Coreau stopped 26 of 27 shots he faced for a .963 save percentage.

•The Griffins swept the three star awards in Game 1: Street (first star), Tangardi (second star) and Ford (third star).

•The teams combined for 10 power play chances in Game 1. Grand Rapids scored once on four tries while the Barracuda was 0-for-6.

Mirco Mueller, Labanc and O’Regan each picked up assists for San Jose in Game 2 while Street, Frk, Bertuzzi and Dylan McIlrath each picked up assists for the Griffins. Coreau made 36 saves on 39 shots in absorbing the loss.

•Special teams ruled the ice in Game 2 as the teams combined for nine power play opportunities and scored four times (3-of-5 for San Jose and 1-of-4 for Grand Rapids).

Nathan Paetsch, a 2013 Calder Cup champion with the Griffins, scored Grand Rapids’ first goal in Game 3 sandwiched around goals by McCarthy and Carpenter.

•Ryan and Heed each picked up assists in Game 3 for the Barracuda while Street and Tangardi each picked up two assists for Grand Rapids.

•The Griffins finished 1-for-3 on the power play in Game 3 while San Jose was 0-for-2.

•Tangardi led Grand Rapids with three points (one goal, two assists) in Game 4 while Street and Nosek each picked up a goal and assist.

•Nosek had two assists in Game 5 for the Griffins while Dominic Turgeon, Frk, Bertuzzi, Colin Campbell and Kyle Criscuolo each registered one assist in the game for the winners.

•Game 5 marked the 11th consecutive game that Grand Rapids had scored a power play goal. The Griffins finished 1-for-3 in Game 5.

•San Jose out-shot Grand Rapids in all three periods in Game 5, leading 12-9 in shots after the first period and 24-19 shots after two periods.

What’s trending

•Callahan enters the Calder Cup Finals with 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 13 playoff games for the Griffins while Ford has accumulated nine points (seven goals, two assists) in the same number of games.

•Street (four goals, 11 assists) and Tangardi (two goals, 13 assists) top Grand Rapids in playoff scoring with 15 points each while Coreau sports a 2.41 GAA, 11-2 record and .922 save percentage in 13 playoff appearances.

•Paetsch, with 97 Calder Cup playoff games to his credit, needs to log three more games to become the 18th player in AHL history to play in 100 Calder Cup playoff games.

•Syracuse defeated visiting Providence, 3-1, in its deciding Game 5 victory to win the Eastern Conference Finals.

•Syracuse’s Cory Conacher leads all AHL playoff scorers with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 16 games. He’s followed on the Crunch score sheet by Yani Gourde with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) and Matt Taormina with 16 points (four goals, 12 assists).

Mike McKenna leads Syracuse with a 2.51 GAA, 11-5 record and .912 save percentage in the Calder Cup playoffs.

•Taormina (first team) and Conacher (second team) both earned berths on this year’s AHL All-Star Team.

•Despite playing in just five postseason games, Ontario goaltender Jack Campbell continues to lead the league with a 1.70 GAA in the Calder Cup playoffs. He finished 2-2 with a .934 save percentage in five appearances in the Pacific Division Finals against San Diego.

•The ECHL Kelly Cup Finals will pit the Colorado Eagles (NHL Colorado Avalanche affiliate) and the South Carolina Stingrays (Washington Capitals affiliate). The Stingrays defeated the Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings affiliate) in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals while Colorado defeated the Toledo Walleye (Red Wings affiliate) in five games.

Add Stanley Cup playoffs

Meier, a Swiss native, and Marcus Sorensen, a Swede, both made their Stanley Cup playoff debuts during the Sharks’ first-round series against Edmonton, which the Oilers captured four games to two. Sorensen, 25, appeared in six games with one goal and one assist while Meier, 20, appeared in five playoff games without recording a point.

During the regular season, Sorenson, originally a fourth-round pick by Ottawa in the 2010 draft, appeared in 43 games with the Barracuda with 14 goals and 28 points and 19 games with the Sharks with one goal and three assists.

Meier, the Sharks’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft (ninth overall), appeared in 33 games with the Barracuda during the regular season with 14 goals and 23 points; he skated in 34 games with the Sharks, collecting three goals and three assists.

Meier appeared in 14 Calder Cup playoff games with four goals and three assists; Sorensen appeared in 10 Calder Cup playoff games with one assist to his credit.

Grand Rapids players on call-ups to the NHL this season included Bertuzzi, Coreau, Nosek, Lashoff, Callahan, Street and Lorito, along with right wing Anthony Mantha, defensemen Nick Jensen, Robbie Russo and Dan Renouf, left wing/center Drew Miller, and Svechnikov, the Red Wings No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft (19th overall).

Svechnikov, a 20-year-old right wing, collected 11 points in 13 Calder Cup playoff games after scoring 20 goals in 74 regular season games with the Griffins.

Mantha appeared in 60 games with Detroit while Miller appeared in 55 games and Jensen suited up for 49 NHL games. Coreau appeared in 25 games for the Red Wings. Callahan had a four-game call-up in March.

The Anaheim Ducks pulled heavily from its San Diego AHL affiliate for the NHL playoffs. Former and current Gulls products were on ample display for TV viewers of its three series against the Calgary Flames, Edmonton and Nashville Predators.

Chris Wagner, assisted by Brandon Montour, scored the Ducks’ lone goal in their 3-1 loss to Nashville in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Wagner and Ondrej Kase, another Gull, scored goals in Anaheim’s 6-3 loss in Game 6 that catapulted the Predators to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Nashville, which will meet defending NHL champion Pittsburgh in this year’s best-of-seven championship series, defeated the Ducks four games to two. The Predators become just the third lowest-seeded team since 1994 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Pens got the jump on the Preds with a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 29. Rookie Jake Guentzel, who racked up 42 points in 33 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL this season while also recording 33 points in 40 regular season NHL games, scored the game winner. He has logged 20 games in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs with 10 goals and 17 points.

Wagner appeared in 60 games for Anaheim in 2016-17, regular season and playoffs combined, with nine goals and 10 points. He appeared in 30 regular season games for San Diego with 12 goals and 19 points.

Kase appeared in 62 combined games for the Ducks with seven goals and 17 points to his credit while also appearing in 17 total games for the Gulls with six goals and 13 points.

Montour appeared in 36 regular season AHL games and 24 regular season NHL games in 2016-17. He tallied 32 points for San Diego and collected seven assists in 17 playoff games for Anaheim

San Diego native Chad Ruhwedel, who played CIF roller hockey at Scripps Ranch High School, had his bell rung by the Ottawa Senators in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final and, according to Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, suffered a concussion.

Ruhwedel appeared in six Stanley Cup playoff games for the Penguins after logging 34 regular season games in the NHL this season with two goals and 10 points. He appeared in 28 regular season games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL in 2016-17 with four goals and 16 points.

Ruhwedel, 27, has 67 NHL games to his credit with two goals and 12 points. He has appeared in more than 200 AHL games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Rochester since leaving UMass-Lowell after the 2012-13 season.

Sullivan and Nashville’s Peter Laviolette are the first U.S.-born head coaches to match up in the Stanley Cup Final. They are among six U.S.-born head coaches in the NHL. It will be just the seventh time in history that a U.S.-born coach has won the Stanley Cup trophy.

The two Massachusetts natives each coached in the AHL with the Providence Bruins.

By the numbers

San Jose averaged 6,107 fans for its two home games in the Western Conference Finals and 5,638 during its seven Calder Cup home games.

The Barracuda averaged 4,312 fans to the SAP Center during 34 regular season home games.

San Diego averaged 8,209 fans for its six home games in this year’s Calder Cup playoffs – 8,367 per game during its division semifinal series against Ontario and 8,052 during its division finals series against San Jose.

Ontario averaged 8,552 fans for its two home games in the division semifinals while Stockton averaged 3,624 fans for its two home games in the division semifinals.

San Diego led the Pacific Division during the regular season with an 8,876 attendance average, followed by Ontario (8,068). Stockton ranked sixth out of eight teams in the division with a 4,531 regular season attendance average.

San Diego ranked third in regular season league attendance behind Hershey (9,309) and Cleveland (9,035). Ontario ranked seventh overall in the 30-team league.

Callahan photo/MiHockey

Ford photo/Mark Newman/Grand Rapids Griffins

Additional photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents