Unlike Red Wings, Griffins rolling into second half of season
Grand Rapids — The Red Wings didn’t go roaring into the All-Star break, now ranking 28th in the 31-team league.
But things are much different with their minor league affiliate.
The Grand Rapids Griffins, overcoming a slow start this season — in part because of all the Red Wings’ injuries, which forced call-ups from Grand Rapids — have leaped into first place in the Central Division and the Eastern Conference.
The Griffins are 25-14-7 (57 points), have won four of their last five games, and are gaining momentum as the American Hockey League All-Star break concludes Thursday.
“We find a way to be better,” said goaltender Patrik Rybar, who has teamed with Harri Sateri to provide stable goaltending all season. “How to be better.”
Grand Rapids entered the break splitting two games with San Jose, the 3-2 shootout victory Saturday giving Griffins the top spot in the Western Conference.
Which didn’t look likely when the Griffins opened the season with what appeared to be a competitive roster, particularly on defense, only to see most of that defense head to Detroit.
With the rash of injuries on the Wings’ defense — Trevor Daley, Mike Green, Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall were all hurt — the Wings kept defensemen Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts to begin the season.
The Griffins, conversely, had to recall defensemen from Toledo to fill out the roster.
That resulted in the Griffins winning only two of their first eight games (2-5-1), before getting some of their defensemen back (only Cholowski stayed in Detroit).
“Our injuries, obviously, affected their roster,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “Once they got their players back, you see how they’ve played.”
And that’s been among the best teams in the AHL.
A good mix of veterans and prospects have carried the Griffins, along with some fine goaltending.
Sateri (15-7-2, 2.94 GAA, .898 SVS) and Rybar (10-7-5, 2.38 GAA, .910 SVS) have split the workload and rarely disappointed.
“Anytime you have two good goalies it gives you a chance to win a hockey game,” Griffins coach Ben Simon said. “Our goalies have given us a chance to win.”
Sateri, 29, came over from the Florida Panthers organization as a free agent on July 1, and has played nine games in the NHL with the Panthers.
Sateri has won seven of his last nine starts (7-1-1) and is staking a claim to get the majority of the workload.
Rybar, 25, was signed as an undrafted free agent after playing in European leagues, and the Czech Republic native has adjusted gradually to North American pro hockey.
“At the start, everything was new to me,” Rybar said. “In the locker room, on the ice, everything was new. But I feel like I’ve grown.”
The smaller ice surface, and the physical play around the net, were factors Rybar had to get acclimated with.
“So much more traffic (around the net),” Rybar said. “The ice is smaller than Europe, it’s faster (game here). It’s a more physical game.
“(But) I’m happy. I needed a change. We work in practice every day. I know both goalies playing very well (in Detroit) but I’m focusing on my game, my play here.”
Veteran forwards Chris Terry (23 goals, 42 points), Matt Puempel (17 goals) and Carter Camper (23 assists), along with defensemen Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath, have been leaders on and off the ice.
“With the schedule we’ve had, we’ve kind of got into a groove of playing, optional skate, skating and playing, and it’s a compliment to the whole room, but mostly the leadership,” Hicketts said. “They’ve gotten everyone ready to play.”
Younger players such as Hicketts, forwards Filip Zadina (11 goals) and Axel Holmstrom (10 goals), and defensemen Hicketts (13 points) and Vili Saarijarvi (11 points) are progressing and developing.
“It’s a never-ending process,” said Simon, who has been impressive in his first-year head coaching the Griffins. “But part of being a good team is the moving parts, and putting one piece in a different part and still have success.”