Grand Rapids Griffins carry long losing skid, but fresh start, into playoffs
Grand Rapids — The Grand Rapids Griffins are heading into the playoffs — it's just not the way they envisioned.
Any hockey team will tell you that ideally, you like to go into the postseason with some momentum. Even if it's just a little.
But the Griffins, the Red Wings’ minor-league affiliate, will open the American League playoffs Friday in Chicago having lost nine straight games.
Momentum? Maybe, but it was going in the opposite direction.
“It’s a fresh season, that’s the way we look at it,” said defenseman Dennis Cholowski, who started the season with the Wings, but was sent to Grand Rapids midway in the season. “Obviously the last 10 games we haven’t been as good as we should be.”
The Griffins lost five of eight games against Chicago — an affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights — during the season.
The first two games in the best-of-five series are Friday and Saturday in Chicago, which comes in as the No. 1 seed in the Central Division. Grand Rapids is the No. 4 seed.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted (to finish) but for us, it’s a new season and anything can happen in the playoffs,” said forward Filip Zadina, the Wings’ first-round draft pick last June. “We have to get back to playing the same type of hockey we played before these last (nine) games. If we play that way, it’ll be easier for us.”
The Griffins are hoping a more settled lineup, improvement with special teams, and some key offensive slumps snapping will ignite another playoff push. The Griffins won the Calder Cup in 2013 and 2017.
With the Red Wings suffering a staggering amount of injuries the final month of the season, as many as seven to 10 Griffins were in the Wings’ lineup toward the end of the NHL season.
When those Griffins returned to the AHL, chemistry became a problem.
“We had some guys that were up and down (with the Wings) and we got a few guys back toward the end,” said forward Dominic Turgeon, one of those players who got a taste of the NHL in March. “We (the Griffins) had slow starts and we weren’t playing our game. We have to get back on track here and make sure we’re ready.
“Our complete level has to be high, and I’m sure it will be. It wasn’t the ending we wanted, but we feel like this is a fresh start and a fresh season. I feel like we’re a confident group.”
The Griffins’ special teams definitely need to get back on track.
Grand Rapids finished ranked 30th (out of 31 teams) on the power play (14.2 percent) and 28th on the penalty kill (78.5 percent).
The Griffins’ penalty kill has allowed a power-play goal in the last 11 games.
“Special teams wins and loses games in the playoffs,” defenseman Joe Hicketts, who played with the Wings in March, said. “Some of that (ineffectiveness) can be attributed to maybe the lack of a set lineup. Guys going to Detroit and power-play guys coming in and out (of the lineup). We’re trying to go with a set lineup and see what happens.
“But definitely they (special teams) need to be better. Everyone knows that.”
Two key Griffins who are looked at for offense have gone silent over the last month.
Veteran forward Chris Terry led the Griffins with 29 goals during the season, had only two over the final 16 games.
Zadina, who had three points (one goal, two assists) in nine games with the Wings in March, returned to Grand Rapids and had four points (one goal, three assists) in the Griffins’ final 14 games.
Zadina had 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in 59 games with the Griffins, but struggled at times defensively and with consistency.
“I was trying my best, trying to shoot the puck,” said Zadina, who went goal-less in five games during the world juniors in December, similar to his late-season struggles. “It was the same like in world juniors. I was trying, (but) the puck wasn’t going in. (But) I’m just going to play and be the same player as during the season.”
Grand Rapids (No. 4 seed in Central Division) vs. Chicago (No. 1)
Records: Grand Rapids (38-27-11, 87 points), Chicago (44-22-10, 98 points). This is a best-of-five series.
TV/radio: All games are on Grand Rapids’ ESPN 96.1 FM and AHLTV
History: This is the sixth time these teams have met in the playoffs. The Griffins have won two of the five series.
Game 1: At Chicago, Friday, 7 p.m.
Game 2: At Chicago, Saturday, 7 p.m.
Game 3: At Grand Rapids, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
* Game 4: At Grand Rapids, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
* Game 5: At Chicago, April 28, 3 p.m.
* - if necessary