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AHL Notebook: Grand Rapids, Syracuse vie in Calder Cup Final

Affiliates of Red Wings, Lightning competing for championship

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The American Hockey League is flashing back to 2013 in the 2017 Calder Cup Finals.

Grand Rapids and Syracuse are playing their second final in five seasons. Grand Rapids defeated Syracuse in six games in 2013 and won Game 1 on Friday.

Grand Rapids, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, advanced to the final by eliminating Milwaukee (Nashville Predators), Chicago (St. Louis Blues) and San Jose (San Jose Sharks). San Jose was the regular-season Western Conference champion, but Grand Rapids won the final in five games.

Syracuse, the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, advanced past Providence (Boston Bruins) in five games, making it three times in six seasons a Lightning affiliate has advanced to the Calder Cup Finals. Before the Eastern Conference final against Providence, Syracuse eliminated St. John's (Montreal Canadiens) and Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs).

Game 2 of the best-of-7 is at Grand Rapids Saturday before the series moves to Syracuse next week for three games. Grand Rapids would host Games 6 and 7 if necessary. Fans can watch the final online for free at SiriusXM NHL Network Radio will broadcast Game 1 and Games 3-7 on channel 91.

Each team was off since May 27. Grand Rapids avoided a long return trip to San Jose by finishing that series in five games, something Grand Rapids coach Todd Nelson cited as a major incentive.

"This time of year, rest is a weapon," Nelson said.

Grand Rapids and Syracuse did not play each other in the regular season. The long break afforded ample time to pre-scout.

"I think the guys are just ready to get the games going," Nelson said.

Syracuse coach Ben Groulx said, "Our players are excited. For us [it is necessary] to make sure that we're relaxed, we're calm, and we're focused on what we have to do.

"We're a team that's playing with a lot of courage, a lot of urgency, and we can use our skills to make the difference."

Each team has been dominant at home in the playoffs. Grand Rapids is 7-0 at Van Andel Arena, outscoring opponents 33-20. Syracuse was 9-0 at Oncenter War Memorial Arena and has a plus-22 goal differential (42-20).

"We're definitely confident playing here," Grand Rapids defenseman Robbie Russo said. "It gets loud in here. The fans get really into it."

The best power play in the AHL has propelled Grand Rapids all season. After finishing first on the man-advantage in the regular season, Grand Rapids has continued its dominance with a league-leading 24.1 percent power play in the playoffs. The Syracuse penalty kill is 11th in the postseason but has a league-leading four shorthanded goals.

Nelson uses a five-forward set-up on one power-play unit but cites hard work as the biggest key to success.

"Our power play is very simple," Nelson said. "All we do is get the puck quickly. We try to attack right away. Having a good net-front presence is key. One of the biggest things if there a rebound is your puck retrieval."

The Grand Rapids offense leads the AHL with 4.08 goals per game in the postseason. Veteran forwards Ben Street and Eric Tangradi each has 15 points. Tangradi's 15 playoff assists lead the AHL.

But the Grand Rapids offense goes much further with a deep group of forwards. Tyler Bertuzzi is an agitator but also has 13 points (six goals, seven assists). Matt Ford, Matt Lorito, and Tomas Nosek each are tied for the team lead with seven goals. Mitch Callahan, Kyle Criscuolo, Martin Frk and Evgeny Svechnikov provide additional offensive options for Nelson.

Nelson also has a skilled group of defensemen. Russo and rookie Joe Hicketts join veteran experience in captain Nathan Paetsch and Brian Lashoff. Dylan McIlrath and Dan Renouf add size.

Syracuse boasts its own impressive offense that ranks second in the playoffs with 3.75 goals per game. Forward Cory Conacher leads the AHL in playoff scoring with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists). His nine goals tie him for the AHL lead with Ryan Carpenter (San Jose) and Danton Heinen (Providence). Fourth in AHL playoff scoring, forward Yanni Gourde had seven points (two goals, five assists) in the final three games of the Providence series. Gourde has 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 17 playoff games.

Syracuse defenseman Matt Taormina, the Eddie Shore Award winner as the top AHL defenseman in the regular season, continues to excel. He leads defensemen with 16 points (four goals, 12 points) and is fifth in playoff scoring. Jake Dotchin, who played 35 games with Tampa Bay in the regular season, is very physical.

"One thing that we noticed is that they're really tenacious on the puck," Nelson said of Syracuse. "They always have two guys on the puck. They work extremely hard, so work ethic is going to be a factor in the series."

Groulx will match veteran goaltender Mike McKenna against Jared Coreau.

McKenna, acquired from the Florida Panthers at the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline on March 1, has a 2.51 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Coreau, who spent a portion of the regular season with the Red Wings, has adjusted well in his return to Grand Rapids and has a 2.41 GAA and .922 save percentage.

Groulx has had his eye on Grand Rapids for a long time.

"I said to my coaches all along that I think that Grand Rapids is probably the best team in the league, so that's what we prepared for," he said. "We prepared to play the best team in the league."

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