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Grand Rapids Griffins traveling far for AHL's Western Conference Finals

Jared Coreau, Joe Hicketts, Tyler Bertuzzi expect tough challenge from San Jose Barracuda

by Dana Wakiji and Art Regner @Dwakiji and @ArthurJRegner /

The Grand Rapids Griffins are traveling far to try to win a Calder Cup.

The team flew to San Jose Thursday so they could have a couple of days to acclimate to the time change before beginning the AHL's Western Conference Finals Saturday against the San Jose Barracuda.

The 1,947 miles traveled is 128 more than the Griffins have ever gone for a playoff series.

Instead of a 2-2-1-1-1 format, the Griffins will play two games in San Jose, then return to Grand Rapids for three games, if necessary. If the series is not decided then, they will return to San Jose for Games 6 and 7.

"I don't mind the 2-3-2 format," Griffins coach Todd Nelson said. "I think it's not as big an advantage for the higher seed versus going 2-2-1-1-1. The travel is going to be the same for both of us. The biggest thing is the time change for me."

Rookie defenseman Joe Hicketts pointed out the advantage in this series to the 2-3-2 schedule.

"I think it's good for travel, obviously," Hicketts said. "It would be tough to go back and forth four times or whatever. I think you go into the first two games hoping for a split and then you have an opportunity to come home and play three and get some momentum. Then if you have to go back out there, you're hoping that you carry that momentum from home and the home crowd to the road."

The Eastern Conference Finals between the Syracuse Crunch and Providence Bruins are also playing a 2-3-2 format.

"I think it's interesting because it's almost as if the advantage can go either way," Griffins goaltender Jared Coreau said. "If you go two games there, which is obviously tough to start on the road, but then you got three games at home. Three games at home is big. I mean, our building, the crowds have been great, lots of energy so I think San Jose, they're going to want to make sure that they're good at home and they don't want to come into Van Andel down or anything where we're going to have momentum. But also too, if we don't perform well at home, we have to go back there perhaps and win two games. But either way, you just have to win games no matter where you are."

The Griffins are 7-1 so far in the postseason, with the only loss a 7-3 stinker at Chicago in Game 2.

"I'm very happy with the way things have been going," Nelson said. "The only adversity that we've really faced is the Game 2 loss to Chicago and I like how our team responded in Game 3 (4-2 win). We've been playing hard, we've been getting contributions from everybody in the lineup. Our special teams have been strong. Right now we're getting scoring from a lot of different people. It makes my job easier knowing that if a team is matching lines against me, I can throw a different line out and also get some production out of them."

As has been the case the last few playoffs, Tyler Bertuzzi has excelled, recording a team-high 10 points (five goals).

Bertuzzi only needs three goals to tie Teemu Pulkkinen for the franchise record in playoff goals with 22.

"I have no idea honestly," Bertuzzi said when asked about his postseason success. "But in the playoffs you put your work boots on and try to play at a different level. I think I take playoffs to heart. I try to come every day and work hard and it's showing."

Nelson believes that Bertuzzi's style just seems to fit this time of year.

"As you know in playoffs, playoff hockey, you have to go to the dirty areas," Nelson said. "That's what he does. He goes to the tough areas to score goals. He's a very passionate player. He just rose his game to a whole different level. He's enjoying this playoff run, he's playing really well for us. But I think just his style of play is suited for playoff hockey. He really does a good job of getting fired up to play in these playoff games."

Fortunately for Nelson, it isn't just Bertuzzi. The Griffins have seven players who have eight or more points this postseason.

Rookie Evgeny Svechnikov has three goals among nine points. Matt Lorito (4-4-8), Tomas Nosek (4-4-8), Mitch Callahan (3-5-8), Ben Street (2-6-8) and Eric Tangradi (1-7-8) are right behind him.

"Svechnikov's having a really good playoff run, he's playing good hockey, scoring big goals for us," Nelson said. "(Rookie) Kyle Criscuolo had a monster game last game. He's been playing very well. I can go through everybody in my lineup right now. The thing is those players stand out. Dylan McIlrath was big for us last series. He's a big body, he likes playing the game within the game because he's a very tough guy, so he can kind of get the other team off their game a bit."

The 6-foot-5, 236-pound McIlrath joined the Griffins after the Red Wings traded forward Thomas Vanek to the Florida Panthers for a third-round pick in 2017 and McIlrath at the March 1 trade deadline.

"We've talked about it over the course of the year, saying we have to get somebody in here to help us survive during the regular season because we didn't really have that element to our game," Nelson said. "We never had an answer so adding a guy like Dylan made everybody grow about five or six inches taller. It was a piece that we felt we needed and it just kind of happened. It was a situation where there was availability for him. It worked out and it certainly has helped our team out. Besides his toughness, Dylan has been doing a great job on the penalty kill - he's a big, rangy guy, pays the price to block shots. He's been a very good fit for us."

The Griffins played the Barracuda just twice in the regular season, both San Jose wins, 4-1 on Jan. 27 in Grand Rapids and a 1-0 shootout in San Jose March 11.

"In only two games, it's hard to really pick up on their concrete tendencies," Coreau said. "I know that they're skilled, they're fast, they got a good D corps that can get pucks through and they use a lot of traffic at the net, which is also true for the San Jose Sharks. So I think it's something that they do with their whole organization. They got good goaltending too. Troy Grosenick has had two shutouts so far in the playoffs, he had 10 throughout the season so he's the kind of guy that can come in and steal a game for them if they need that to happen. We have to go into the series knowing that they're a good team from the goaltender out and we just have to win the special teams and pay the price."

Hicketts is expecting a real challenge from the Barracuda.

"They're a hard team to play against," Hicketts said. "They play very aggressive, they're very dynamic offensively, they're going to be able to put a lot of goals up if we don't play the right way. I'm expecting a tight-checking series, I expect the series to go the distance. It probably will go the distance if both teams are prepared as well as they want to be."

Nelson believes that the Barracuda are kind of a mirror image of the Griffins.

"Goaltending's excellent," Nelson said. "There's not too many things missing with this hockey team. They're a skilled bunch. One thing that they do have is their six defensemen that they have playing for them are very mobile and they create a lot of offense with their defensemen joining the rush. That's something that we have to really focus on, make sure we're forechecking effectively because if you give them a chance to join the rush, they're joining. They're just solid. If you look at their special teams, they've been very good with that. They play a fast game. They're quick as a player group but also they play fast, their transition game's fast so that's caused problems for a lot of teams."

The Griffins led the league on the power play in the regular season at 24.4 percent and that success has continued in the postseason.

The Griffins have scored a power-play goal in six straight playoff games, tied for the longest streak in team history.

The Barracuda were right behind the Griffins, scoring on 23.8 percent of their man-advantage opportunities in the regular season.

The Griffins finished 11th on the penalty kill at 82.8 percent while the Barracuda were tied for seventh at 83.7 percent.

While the Griffins are expecting their toughest challenge so far in the Barracuda, they still have their eyes on the prize - winning their second Calder Cup since 2013.

"From the beginning of the year, this was the goal," Bertuzzi said. "We knew we had a good team coming in and it's a long run with a lot of good guys. We're halfway there right now. Going into this next series, it's a big one, we're all really, really excited to push forward here and hopefully we can come away (with another win) here."

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