Pittsburgh – The wait was long this season but turned out to be well worth it.
For Grand Rapids Griffins players like Matt Puempel, Dylan McIlrath, Dominic Turgeon, Jake Chelios and Joe Hicketts, it was difficult at times during a long regular season waiting for a call to the NHL.
Though the Griffins are a good organization and they again have had a fine season, every player would rather be in the NHL.
“I’m not going to lie, it can wear on you,” said McIlrath of waiting to be promoted by the Wings. “It’s a long season. Every hockey player is wanting to get to that next level and has that competitive edge in them. That’s probably one of the toughest parts of the game in the AHL – staying patient and biding your time and getting better every day.
“I know it’s cliche, but you have to have your mind on the end goal. I’m glad it’s finally happened.”
When the Wings were hit with many injuries after the trade deadline – half the regular lineup was out the last several games – it presented the Wings with a great opportunity to promote veteran Griffins who were having fine seasons.
“That’s one of the things we’ve tried to do with some of these guys is get them up here as a reward for their work in the organization,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s a big piece of our development model. So some of the veteran guys who wouldn’t normally get the love, you get a chance to reward them and have them play in the NHL, and we get a chance to see them play.
“The one thing they would say is, give me an opportunity, and I get it. (But) sometimes opportunities are hard to give. Injuries have presented a ton of opportunity for guys and it’s good for us, we can get a look and see and have a better feel at what level they’re at. It’s hard to project guys at this level until you see them play.”
The older Griffins have played a part in the Wings’ success – they’ve won eight of the last 10 games – and Puempel got on the scoresheet in Thursday’s 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh.
Puempel deflected a shot by Filip Hronek, scoring an early power-play goal, his first as a Wing after earlier stays in Ottawa and the New York Rangers in his career.
“Being in the NHL before, and going to the minors, you have to work hard every day mentally and physically,” Puempel said. “To be able to come back at the end of the year, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been fun getting some wins.”
While with the Wings, the Griffins players are still keeping tabs with their former teammates in Grand Rapids.
The Griffins players will be returned to Grand Rapids after Saturday’s game against Buffalo, and they’ll be eligible for the AHL playoffs. The Griffins close out their regular season next week.
The Griffins appear to be locked into second place in the Central Division, earning first-round home-ice advantage and should have a deep and confident team heading into the playoffs.
“That’s my team, we’ve sacrificed all year together,” McIlrath said. “I feel like it’s a quarter of the room is guys from GR right now. It’s fun to go through this for sure.”
Sabres at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: The teams close out the regular season in a crucial game for draft lottery odds. … Both teams have 74 points, so the winner will leapfrog the loser, but loser’s odds of getting the No. 1 pick will be better.