Griffins expect battle with San Jose’s special teams
Detroit — The Grand Rapids Griffins are back in familiar territory.
The Red Wings’ minor league affiliate begins its third AHL Western Conference Finals appearance in five years (2013, 2015, 2017) Saturday in San Jose.
The Griffins play the Barracuda on back-to-back days Saturday and Sunday, before the series shifts to Grand Rapids Wednesday in a 2-3-2 format in the best-of-seven series.
This will be the first conference finals appearance by a San Jose Sharks affiliate.
Three Griffins players — Brian Lashoff, Mitch Callahan, Nathan Paetsch — still remain from Grand Rapids’ 2013 Calder Cup-winning team.
“Experience is an important factor, and hopefully we can use it to our advantage,” Griffins coach Todd Nelson said.
With two even teams, each matching each other’s strengths, an ingredient such as experience could possibly give a team an edge.
But Nelson knows this will not be easy.
“They’re a very good team, a real good skating team,” Nelson said. “Special teams will be a key. Our special teams have been good, and they have to continue to play at a high level in this series.”
The Griffins have the second-best power play in the AHL in the playoffs (22.2 percent) and San Jose the fourth (20.5 percent).
On the penalty kill, Grnad Rapids is ranked fifth (88.6 percent) and San Jose, eighth (86.5 percent).
“It’s huge,” said Nelson of the special teams success. “The power play has really been coming on. San Jose is a team that has good special teams. We have to match them.”
Nelson’s been getting balanced offense from a Griffins lineup that’s looked deep, dangerous and versatile in the playoffs.
For a third consecutive playoffs, Tyler Bertuzzi is again leading the Griffins with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in eight games.
Bertuzzi hasn’t lost his agitating edge, either, leading the Griffins with 16 penalty minutes.
“He’s goes into the gritty areas, he likes playing there, and in the playoffs that gets magnified and he’s had success,” Nelson said. “He plays with a lot of passion.”
Evgeny Svechnikov (three goals, nine points), Matt Lorito (four goals, four assists), Tomas Nosek (four goals, four assists) and Callahan (three goals, five assists) are right behind Bertuzzi in the scoring column.
Goaltender Jared Coreau (2.64 goals-against average, .908 save percentage) had a one sub-par game against Chicago in the conference semifinals but quickly recovered.
“He faced adversity and you wanted to see how he would bounce back,” Nelson said. “Jared did so playing really, really well.”
In the 2-3-2 format, the Griffins could take a measure of control in the series if they simply manage a split in San Jose.
With the next three games in Grand Rapids, the Griffins could grab a stranglehold on the series at home.
“I don’t mind the 2-3-2 format,” Nelson said. “I don’t mind starting a series on the road. I’ve always felt there’s a measure of pressure for the team starting at home.”
Grand Rapids vs. Barracuda
What: Grand Rapids Griffins vs. San Jose Barracuda in best-of-seven AHL Western Conference finals series
At stake: Spot in Calder Cup finals
Home games at Van Andel Arena
Saturday: at San Jose, 9 p.m.
Sunday: at San Jose, 8 p.m.
Wednesday: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
Friday: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
*Saturday, May 27: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
*Tuesday, May 30: at San Jose, 10 p.m.
*Wednesday, May 31: at San Jose, 10 p.m.