ROCKFORD, Ill. – The Grand Rapids Griffins are heading to the Western Conference finals for the second time in three seasons, as their 5-3 win at the BMO Harris Bank Center on Sunday gave them a 4-1 series victory over the Rockford IceHogs.
Andy Miele powered the offense with a goal and two assists, while Tom McCollum made 24 saves behind a stifling Grand Rapids defense that allowed a total of nine shots over the first 40 minutes. Thanks to a full-team effort, the Griffins improved to 3-0 all time under Jeff Blashill in road games when their opponent faced elimination. More impressively, Grand Rapids is now 7-1 in playoff series during Blashill’s three seasons behind the bench, after winning just eight series (against 10 losses) during the franchise’s first 16 years.
The Griffins must now wait for the conclusion of the other Western Conference semifinal series to learn their next opponent, as Game 6 between the top-seeded Utica Comets and No. 6 Oklahoma City Barons will be staged in upstate New York at 7 p.m. on Monday. Utica currently leads that series, 3-2.
Teemu Pulkkinen struck for his AHL-leading 13th goal of the playoffs during a power play just 5:01 into the contest, one-timing Miele’s feed past the glove of Michael Leighton from the point. It marked his 30th career playoff point – second all time behind Derek King’s 41 – and eighth power-play tally, breaking a tie with King and Tomas Tatar for the most in franchise history.
Grand Rapids nearly scored during another power play seconds before the intermission buzzer, but Nathan Paetsch’s try from above the right circle caromed off the near pipe, keeping the lead at one entering the second period.
Miele needed just 39 seconds after the puck dropped to increase the visitors’ cushion to two, leading a 3-on-1 and patiently keeping the puck before spinning and slipping a backhand between Leighton’s pads, sending the veteran to the bench in favor of seldom used Mac Carruth.
Carruth, who saw action in just three AHL games this season and 10 during his two pro seasons, was promptly welcomed at 2:16 by Marek Tvrdon, who scooped home a rebound for his first career playoff goal.
Down 3-0, the IceHogs answered off a faceoff win in the right circle at 5:10, as Tanner Kero quickly snapped a wrister past McCollum’s glove to give Rockford life.
That glimmer of hope lasted about seven minutes, until Tyler Bertuzzi threw a sharp-angle shot on net from the bottom of the right circle that somehow escaped Carruth’s grasp, restoring the Griffins’ three-goal lead with 7:39 remaining in the period. It marked the sixth goal and ninth point in just eight playoff games for the rookie.
A frustrated IceHogs squad then committed a pair of penalties within 11 seconds of each other, giving Grand Rapids 1:49 of a 5-on-3 advantage with 5:55 left. Despite constant pressure in the Rockford end and several scoring chances, including another Paetsch shot off the iron, the IceHogs managed to kill off the penalties with no further damage.
Jeff Hoggan made it a 5-1 game with an empty-net goal at 11:38 of the third, as the IceHogs had pulled Carruth in a desperation effort to close the gap. Zach Miscovic then cut the deficit back to three by sending a slapper off the post and into the net from the right circle with 3:46 remaining, before Brandon Mashinter scored a power play goal with Carruth on the bench at the 18:01 mark to provide the final margin.
GAME NOTES: The Griffins are 7-1 since starting the postseason with an 0-2 deficit to Toronto. … Bertuzzi logged his fourth game-winning goal of the playoffs, one shy of Stacy Roest’s career and single-season franchise records of five set in 2003. He is also two behind the AHL playoff record of six held by Darren Haydar (2006) and Bud Holloway (2010).
THREE STARS: 1. GRG Andy Miele (goal, two assists); 2. GRG Teemu Pulkkinen (power-play goal, assist); 3. RFD Brandon Mashinter (power-play goal, assist).