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AHL pushes pause on season when Griffins were 'starting to click'

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Grand Rapids Griffins were playing some of their best hockey of the regular season.

Then on March 12, the American Hockey League — and the rest of the sports — hit the pause button because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Just like that, there were no answers to a lot of questions surrounding this season.

Joe Veleno and the Griffins were in playoff contention before the American Hockey League suspended its season earlier this month.

These days, at home with his family and staying busy going over different facets of this season, Griffins coach Ben Simon only hopes there will be an opportunity to complete the season.

“We were playing very well. We were in a playoff position when we stopped,” Simon said. “Some of the younger players were playing real, real well. There were a lot of things that were trending in the right direction. To have it stopped like this, it’s tough.”

The Griffins, the Red Wings’ minor league affiliate, were 29-27-7, with 65 points, good for third in the Central Division. The top four teams in each of the four divisions qualify for the playoffs.

Since Jan. 1, the Griffins were 16-10-3, with numerous reasons for the rebound.

Recent first-round draft picks Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno and Moritz Seider were playing their best hockey and playing with as much confidence as they had been all season.

Goaltenders Pat Nagle and Calvin Pickard had stabilized the position, which was a problem point early on.

The special teams were thriving, with the power play, in particular, surging from 26th early in the season to sixth when the season paused.

And the Griffins were as whole as they’d been all season. They were healthy and using the roster they had envisioned.

“That was a big thing, we had guys healthy again. We weren’t dinged with injuries, and we had a lot of guys playing to their potential,” Simon said. “Ras came back from his injury and was playing real well. Veleno was really turning the corner. Seider was our best defenseman.

“It’s disappointing that it stopped at that point in time. We were starting to click as a group and all of a sudden the emergency break was yanked.

“It’s a little disheartening, but it was still encouraging the way guys were starting to play and come together as a group and progress and develop as individuals.”

A potential playoff run would be a tremendous learning experience for the organization’s young prospects.

But Simon feels the Griffins’ young players have already learned quite a bit during their late-season surge into playoff contention.

“Playoff games are extremely important for young guys to go through, and realize the importance of every shift, the importance of every game, and how to prepare in those situations,” Simon said. “But when you take a step back, the last two months we’ve been in a dogfight (with five teams for two playoff spots) and it was a pressure situation. These young kids were still playing in meaningful games and situations and that couldn’t be overlooked.

“A lot of our young guys did well in those situations and did well under the pressure.”

Simon is realistic about a resumption of this season, given the daily news. The AHL has suspended play to at least May, when the situation will be re-evaluated.

“You turn on the television and everything you read, it’s not great news,” Simon said. “But you’re preparing as if at some point we resume, until we’re told definitely.”

Griffins players remained in town until the Center for Disease Control issued further restrictions of crowd gathering. At that point, players were allowed to return to their permanent homes with families.

The coaching staff has kept in touch with players through an app, with the strength and conditioning staff supplying players with ways to remain in shape.

But without the ability to skate and get the feel of the ice, it’s going to be difficult to remain in game condition.

“Anytime you’re supposed to be self-quarantined and quarantining, and limited to as what you can do, you can’t skate,” Simon said. “If I’m a basketball player, you can probably go to the park and shoot a basketball by myself and not put myself at risk.

“There’s no park or recreation center keeping their building open now, so you can’t skate. So, from a hockey player’s standpoint, it’s hard.

“You can run, do push-ups and stay in shape, but it’s tough to replicate skating and stay sharp with your skills. It’s not like you’re sitting home in the summer and you can work with a group of guys and be on the ice.

“(But) everyone is kind of in the same boat when everyone comes back.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan