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Golden Staters mine gold with 2017 Calder Cup championship

 

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A pair of Californians did indeed get their hands on this year’s Calder Cup championship trophy after all.

Though the Pacific Division champion San Jose Barracuda fell short in its quest to raise the American Hockey League’s top playoff prize, Whittier’s Mitch Callahan and West Hills’ Matt Ford did so as members of the 2017 Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins.

It was a storybook ending to cap the AHL’s 81st season for both Golden State natives.

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The Calder Cup championship was the second for Callahan — and second with the Griffins, the top developmental team of the NHL Detroit Red Wings — while Ford won the trophy for the first time in his lengthy AHL career.

Both players got their moment in the spotlight to the cheers of a home sellout crowd of 10,834 at Van Andel Arena on the night of June 13 as Grand Rapids defeated the visiting Syracuse Crunch 4-3 to wrap up a four games-to-two victory in the teams’ best-of-seven championship series.

Callahan and Ford each scored a goal in the deciding Game 6 for the hosts.

Ford, sporting a full playoff-themed beard, kissed the cup as he took his turn hoisting the trophy during the postgame celebration. He was the second player to lift the trophy after team captain Nathan Paetsch was presented with the cup by AHL commissioner Dave Andrews.

Callahan, Paetsch and teammate Brian Lashoff were the remaining three players on the Griffins’ previous Calder Cup championship team in 2013.

It could be a memorable final go-around with the Michigan team for the 25-year-old Callahan, who has played through two broken jaws and a torn ACL while racking up 94 career goals (third all-time in franchise history) since joining the team in 2011.

“Grand Rapids … thank you for the best six years of my life,” Callahan posted on his Twitter account (@Mcally15) on June 15. “Sharing two cups with you guys is amazing. Thank you for everything. Love you all!”

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While Callahan’s future is uncertain with the team, the 32-year-old Ford has one year remaining on the two-year AHL contract he signed with the Griffins following the 2015-16 season with the Bakersfield Condors.

Ford has played with eight teams in the AHL since 2008. He spoke about the grind that wears on one’s body and soul in winning a professional sports championship. He also spoke about the emotional rush that transcends the pain.

“I go back to the Syracuse games, it was so hard to play on the road,” explained Ford, who tallied eight goals and 12 points in 19 playoff games during this year’s Calder Cup championship run. “And likewise, coming here (for Game 6), these fans, coming out for warm-ups it was like a seventh man out here on the ice.

“I don’t know if the physical grind or the mental grind is so tough here in the playoffs, but here in the finals, man, there was some adversity. A lot of people doubted us when we lost 5-1 (in Game 5). But we didn’t panic. We came back here at home. We had to wait until the third period to get it going. But I thought we just kept moving our feet and we believed in each other.”

Ford said it was important for everyone on the team to keep their composure during last five minutes of Game 6 as the Griffins nursed a tenuous one-goal lead.

“It was just focus,” Ford said. “I wasn’t thinking about the game being over or about the win. For me it was just about getting in the next zone. It was a simple play. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. That was a talented hard-working team over there (the Crunch) and they deserve a lot of credit.”

Ford, who captured a NCAA Division I championship with the University of Wisconsin in 2006, appeared in 64 games in 2015-16 for Bakersfield, scoring 27 goals and 51 points to rank first on the team in scoring. He tallied 14 goals and 35 points in 51 regular season games this season for Grand Rapids. He’s played in 571 career AHL games but has yet to make his NHL debut.

Ford remained humble in victory, simply posting “Champions” on his Twitter account (@Frdy11). He later posted a photo of himself hoisting the cup in the team’s boisterous locker room (https://www.instagram.com/p/BVThdHJl9yb/).

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Callahan, a right wing taken in the sixth round of the 2009 draft by the Red Wings, collected six goals and 16 points in this year’s playoffs to rank fifth on the team in postseason scoring — 10th in the league. He totaled 16 goals, 43 points and 57 penalty minutes in 66 regular season games with the Griffins. During the regular season, he played in four NHL games to bring his career total with Detroit to five.

He said his role has changed somewhat in the intervening years since the Griffins first won their first Calder Cup. But that does not change the elation he felt over winning the trophy for the second time.

“They’re both great but I’m a little older now, so I’m cherishing this one a little more,” Callahan told MLive.com. “It’s winning at home that makes this so special. These fans are very deserving of all this and we’re a very happy team right now.”

Callahan, who was a member of the 2011 United States World Junior bronze medalist team, gained social media fame after posting a gruesome selfie of his bloody face (pic.twitter.com/8DfILryNg7) after being hit with a puck during a regular season game in April 2014. He lost several teeth during the incident, suffered a fractured jaw and had his jaw wired shut, thus limiting his communication abilities to e-mails with the media.

“As soon as the puck hit me, my teeth instantly flew out,” he wrote in an email to MLive.com following the incident. “I was hoping I had lost only a few teeth and would get some stitches so I could join the guys and come back for the game.

“Our trainer told me I wasn’t returning and that it looks to be more serious than I thought. Then it hit me to be a serious injury when I was told I needed surgery.”

But it’s now good for Callahan. And it’s obviously great for the Griffins, who were feted to a downtown parade and rally on June 16.

Final act

Grand Rapids took a three-games-to-two lead back to Van Andel Arena after being routed 5-1 in Game 5 on June 10. The Griffins won the opening two games in the series on home ice – 3-2 on June 2 and 6-5 in double overtime on June 3 — but lost Game 3 on June 7 by a score of 5-3 as the series shifted to central New York for three games.

Grand Rapids took a commanding three games-to-one lead in the series on the strength of a gritty 3-2 win in Game 4 on June 9. But the host Crunch, the top developmental team of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, stole the momentum with the runaway win in Game 5 and skated to three one-goal leads in Game 6 in a bid to force a winner-take-all seventh game.

Ford scored a power play goal 18 seconds into the second period of Game 6 to knot the teams in a 1-1 deadlock. The goal was Ford’s eighth of the playoffs and league-leading sixth power-play goal. Teammate Tomas Nosek picked up his 10th assist on the play.

Next, it was Callahan’s turn to score for the hosts. His goal at the 11:50 mark of the second period, assisted by Ben Street, tied the game 2-2.

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Syracuse would take a 3-2 lead into the third period at which point the Griffins made their sizzling comeback. Tyler Bertuzzi scored with 3:50 gone in the period to tie the game, 3-3, and Martin Frk notched what proved to be the game-winner with 7:19 to play in regulation.

Octopuses, a Red Wings tradition, made their appearance on the ice throughout the high-profile game.

Frk, with a goal and assist, earned the game’s No. 1 star award while Nosek (with three assists) was voted the game’s No. 2 star and Yanni Gourde, who scored twice for the Crunch, received recognition as the game’s third star.

Bertuzzi, who finished the playoffs with nine goals and 19 points, received the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. The second-round pick (58th overall) in the 2013 draft by Detroit, the 22-year-old forward holds the Grand Rapids franchise record for most playoff goals with 23.

Road to the cup

Callahan and Ford each picked up one assist in Game 1. Callahan drew the primary assist on Nosek’s jump goal at 4:56 of the first period while Ford set up Nosek’s dramatic game-winner with just 14 seconds left in regulation play.

The Griffins’ two Californians each had an assist in Game 2 as well. Ford assisted on Frk’s jump goal at 5:27 of the first period; Callahan assisted on rookie Evgeny Svenchnikov’s power play goal at 12:53 of the second period to tie the game 3-3.

Callahan picked up his 10th assist of the playoffs by assisting Street at 10:00 of the first period in Game 4 as the visiting Griffins raced to a key 3-0 lead.

Neither Callahan nor Ford picked up points in Game 3 and Game 5, both Grand Rapids losses.

Series highlights

The Calder Cup is named for Frank Calder, the first president of the NHL (1917-43) and one of the driving forces behind the formation of the AHL. The trophy, in its current configuration, stands 24 inches tall and weighs 28 pounds. The bowl is made of sterling silver; the base is made of Brazilian mahogany.

Grand Rapids goaltender Jared Coreau (15-4) made 29 saves to post the Game 6 win, while Crunch netminder Mike McKenna (13-9) stopped 22 shots in defeat. Coreau finished the Griffins’ 19 playoff games with a 2.89 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

Coreau, an undrafted free agent signed by Detroit, appeared in 14 games during the regular season for the Red Wings with a 5-4-3 record, 3.46 GAA and .887 save percentage. He posted shutouts against the L.A. Kings and Montreal Canadiens.

The Griffins netminder, who said his time in Detroit was crucial in learning how “to be a real pro,” noted the intensity level cranks itself up during the playoffs. “The hits are harder, the shots are faster, everything is just quicker,” he said.

Nosek led all Grand Rapids scorers in the Calder Cup Finals with eight points (three goals, five assists). He led the Griffins in playoff scoring with 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists).

Syracuse right wing Cory Conacher, who played in the NARCh Finals during his youth roller hockey career, led all AHL playoff scorers with 12 goals and 28 points in 22 games. Gourde was right behind his teammate with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists).

Goude became the first player to record 10 points in a Calder Cup Finals since Chicago’s Jason Krog in 2008. He led the AHL in the postseason with 18 assists.

Street scored the game-winner for Grand Rapids in Game 2 at 7:29 of the second overtime period. He ranked second on the team in postseason scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists).
NHL prospects look to benefit the Red Wings organization in the future. Rookies rocked for the Griffins in the playoffs. Svechnikov, 20, had five goals and seven assists, while forward Kyle Criscuolo, 25, tallied five goals and four assists. Joe Hicketts, 21, had one goal and seven assists while Dan Renouf, 23, had two goals and two assists. Renouf scored twice to pace Grand Rapids’ Game 4 victory.

What’s trending

•The 2017 Calder Cup playoffs were the most well-attended in league history with a total of 457,672 fans passing through the turnstiles during the four rounds of the playoffs. Four of the six games in the Calder Cup Finals were sellouts.

•All four of Grand Rapids’ victories in the Calder Cup Finals came by one-goal margins.

•The Griffins were a perfect 10-0 at home in the playoffs, including three wins when trailing after 40 minutes.

•Grand Rapids finished 5-for-15 on the power play at home during the Calder Cup Finals and 0-for-16 on the road. Syracuse finished 4-for-32 on the power play in the Calder Cup Finals, including 1-for-20 to end the series.

•Eight of Syracuse’s nine postseason losses were by a single goal.

•Game 6 was the only game of the Calder Cup Finals in which the team scoring first did not win.

•There has still not been a Calder Cup Finals series to go seven games since 2003 (Houston vs. Hamilton).

•Grand Rapids head coach Todd Nelson is 91-53-2-6 in the regular season and 20-8 in the postseason through the second year of a three-year contract with the club. Nelson joins Bob Woods and Mike Stothers (Ontario Reign) as the only individuals to win Calder Cup championships as a player, an assistant coach and head coach.

•Barracuda forward Ryan Carpenter finished ninth in playoff scoring with 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 15 games. Ontario’s Jack Campbell led AHL netminders in the postseason with a 1.70 GAA and .934 save percentage in five games.

•Hershey’s Pheonix Copley, a former member of the 18U California Titans, ranked second in the playoffs with a 2.13 GAA and .933 save percentage in nine games.

•Grand Rapids will open defense of its Calder Cup championship when the AHL’s 82nd season faces off Oct. 6. New entries in the league next season include the Belleville Senators (Ottawa), Binghamton Devils (New Jersey) and Laval Rocket (Montreal).

Photos/Sam Iannamico and Mark Newman/Grand Rapids Griffins

— Phillip Brents