Even though he was still wearing an AHL jersey at the time, Grand Rapids forward Darren McCarty
knew he was in the right place on the night of April 24.
That's when his Griffins beat Hamilton, 4-1, in Game 5 of the North Division Semifinals. It was a clutch rebound performance from Game 4 two nights earlier, when the Griffins blew a 3-0 lead in the third and fell in overtime.
"It's about not getting too high, and not getting too low. It's about character, being able to bounce back," McCarty said. "On all the championship teams I've played with, you are going to face adversity. It's how you react."
McCarty's resilience is usually established once he slips any one of the four Stanley Cup rings he won with the Detroit Red Wings
onto his fingers. In the first round, he summoned much of the same passion in helping his younger teammates ignite their own fires.
McCarty, 37, contributed 2 goals and 1 assist as Grand Rapids closed out Hamilton. Then, the Griffins moved on to face Manitoba in the Calder Cup Quarterfinals. McCarty's force of personality was up against an even stiffer test in that series, as the Moose raced out to a 3-0 series lead.
Regardless, this postseason has been the latest swerve in McCarty's fight to keep earning a pro paycheck. He began last year with Flint of the International Hockey League, moved on to Grand Rapids and then concluded with another ring in Detroit. This season, hernia surgery limited him to 13 games in Detroit and 19 in Grand Rapids.
"I was there (Grand Rapids) to fill a role. I was good with the role," McCarty said. "The whole thing is you want to pass along the system. The whole thing is what it takes to win. I've always considered myself more a playoff guy than a regular-season guy. Playoffs are playoffs. I don't care if it's in a men's league."
McCarty hasn't dipped that low yet, but he's certainly in a so-close-but-so-far-away situation in Grand Rapids. Just a short jaunt away, his powerhouse buddies in Detroit are a strong Stanley Cup contender again. McCarty played in 17 postseason games for the Red Wings last year, and no doubt he's still savvy enough to work his way into that party again.
But during the Griffins' postseason stretch, McCarty has had to support the big team's push from a distance that might as well be a continent away.
"They are all my buddies," he said of the Red Wings. "I feel part of the family. It's something you cheer on. If I don't play and they win, I'll be just as happy for those guys. I feel like I'm helping do my part in a different way, not on the ice, but with the young guys."
Smolinski not ready for his ending
-- The Milwaukee Admirals sure know how to mine some postseason depth. Before the second round of the playoffs against Houston, the Milwaukee Admirals decided they needed another scoring threat.
Someone like forward Bryan Smolinski
would fit that bill. Yeah, the same Smolinski who has 651 points in 1,056 regular-season NHL games for the Bruins, Penguins, Islanders, Kings, Senators, Blackhawks, Canucks and Canadiens.
So Milwaukee signed Smolinski to a tryout deal. Smolinski, 37, was coming off 21 games with Port Huron of the IHL earlier this season, scoring 9 goals and 30 points.
"It's about not getting too high, and not getting too low. It's about character, being able to bounce back. On all the championship teams I've played with, you are going to face adversity. It's how you react."
-- Darren McCarty
Smolinski spoke with Milwaukee officials during the season about a possible trial. That idea stalled, but the Admirals decided he was worth a look now.
"It's a little odd. These guys have been great. We're not re-inventing the wheel," said Smolinski, who was scoreless in his first three games with a plus-2 rating. "I'm not out there demanding ice time. I'm out there to enhance the experience. These guys are like sponges. There are questions every day, how good is that guy, these superstars (he played with and against). It's real fun to see the generation gap."
Smolinski isn't sure how this little stopover fits in with the bigger picture of whatever's left of his career.
"By no means do I feel I'm done. But I understand there's an ending to everyone's career," he said. "It's not always good. But that's why you call an ending an ending. Hopefully I can keep adapting to the game and keep contributing to the common goal."
Gordon tailors his game for shot at NHL
-- Hershey second-year forward Andrew Gordon
looks at the drop-off in his numbers from last year to this season and sees significant progress made toward an eventual NHL job.
It's not a contradiction in terms.
Gordon, by his own estimation, isn't going to build a huge case for a promotion as a top-two line player. But with the Bears last season, that was exactly his role. In 58 games, he popped in 16 goals and 35 assists.
This year, Hershey is an embarrassment of riches on offense, as evidenced by its six-game winning streak from the start of the playoffs into the East Division Finals. A middle-of-the-road scorer can easily play a stealth-like game behind the brilliance of Alexandre Giroux
, Keith Aucoin
, Chris Bourque
and Graham Mink
. That's the tact Gordon happily took this season, with 21-24 in 80 games.
The tradeoff was that Gordon, 23, got a large dose of third-line minutes, and the accompanying roles of penalty killer and trusted defender.
"That (falling stats) is never a good thing. But I feel I took major steps forward on this team," he said. "The role I play on this team is the role I aspire to play in the NHL. Last year, I might have had two assists, but we lost 3-2. This year, I might have had none, but blocked two shots and we win. I just want to contribute somehow on a game-by-game basis."
The bonus now is that as fun as it is to watch the dazzlers compile numbers during the regular season, it's the grind-it-out style that Gordon has sunk his teeth into that produces chances in the playoffs. Through the Bears' first six postseason contests, Gordon produced two goals and two assists.
"If you see me in the playoffs, my job is to finish checks," he said. "I think in the playoffs I focus more on defense just because every inch you give an opponent could be your life. From a tight defense, you are going to breed opportunities."
Around the AHL
-- Providence has signed center Jamie Arniel
to a tryout contract. Arniel, 19, recently finished his fourth junior season in the OHL, registering career-highs with 68 points, 32 goals and 36 assists in 63 games for Sarnia. He is the nephew of Manitoba coach Scott Arniel
. ... Hershey captain Bryan Helmer
played in his 100th career Calder Cup playoff game in Game 1 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on May 2. He became the 13th player to reach that milestone. Grand Rapids’ Darren Haydar
hit the 100-game mark in the previous round. ...The Bears beat the Penguins 5-3 in that game. Hershey has won 10 consecutive playoff series in which it won Game 1, dating back to a 1999 defeat of Kentucky. ... Hershey is 8-1 at Giant Center in the playoffs against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. ...The Moose have won six straight playoff games, their longest such winning streak since joining the AHL. ...Through Game 3 of the North Division Finals against the Griffins, Manitoba goalie Cory Schneider
had not surrendered more than two goals in a game since a 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto in the playoff opener on April 15. ... In 23 career AHL playoff games, Milwaukee goaltender Drew MacIntyre
has allowed more than two goals five times. MacIntyre is 0-5 in those games, and 13-4 when allowing two goals or fewer.