ROCKFORD, Ill. – Jumpstarted by shorthanded and power play goals in the opening period, the Rockford IceHogs nosed their way back into the Western Conference semifinals with a 4-1 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday at the BMO Harris Bank Center.
The Griffins, who now lead the best-of-seven series 2-1, will remain in Rockford to play Game 4 on Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT and Game 5 on Sunday at 5 p.m. Grand Rapids is 5-0 at home this postseason but is still searching for its first road victory, going 0-3 thus far away from Van Andel Arena.
After surviving a number of Rockford scoring chances in the early going, the Griffins were presented a five-minute power play with 8:04 remaining in the opening period, after Cody Bass charged Nathan Paetsch in the corner. Paetsch, who lost his helmet on the hit from behind into the boards, went to the locker room for examination before returning to action during Grand Rapids’ advantage.
Despite being shorthanded, the opportunistic IceHogs scored at 12:21, as Mark McNeill picked off an errant pass at the Grand Rapids blue line and outraced three Griffins before deking and putting the puck past Tom McCollum’s glove.
The Griffins’ power play eventually became 46 seconds of 5-on-3 time thanks to a cross-checking call on Viktor Svedberg, but it ultimately expired without harm to the home squad. After dodging that bullet, the IceHogs capitalized on their own power play at the 18:36 mark, when Ryan Hartman got a step on the defense and chipped a backhand over McCollum to give Rockford a 2-0 lead at intermission.
Teemu Pulkkinen put the Griffins on the board during a power play 8:27 into the second period, pushing his AHL-high goal total to 12 by intercepting a clearing attempt and quickly ripping his patented slap shot past Michael Leighton from above the left circle. With the 29th point (20-9—29) of his Griffins playoff career, Pulkkinen moved past Jiri Hudler into sole possession of second on the team’s all-time postseason scoring list, behind only Derek King (16-25—41).
Rockford defenseman Stephen Johns continued his strong series by putting the ‘Hogs ahead 3-1 less than five minutes into the third period. He pounced on another clearing attempt at the right point and sent a shot inside the far post from the circle at 4:50.
Despite a manageable deficit, the Griffins recorded only two shots during the third period to the point when Spencer Abbott scored into an empty net with 3:04 remaining. They finished with five shots for the frame and 24 for the game against Leighton, who was scarcely tested during a 23-save performance. McCollum also made 23 stops for the Griffins, who scored on just one of their eight power play chances.
GAME NOTES: The Griffins have lost a franchise-record six straight road playoff games dating to the 2014 conference semifinals, a stretch that began immediately after a team-record seven-game road winning streak in the postseason. ... Tomas Tatar is the only Griffin to have scored more goals than Pulkkinen during a single playoff year, notching 16 in 24 games during the 2013 Calder Cup run to claim playoff MVP honors. Pulkkinen’s 12 have come in just eight outings. ... All time, the Griffins are 6-1 in best-of-seven series in which they held a 2-1 lead, most recently beating Toronto 4-2 in the 2013 conference semis.
THREE STARS: 1. RFD Stephen Johns (goal, assist); 2. RFD Mark McNeill (shorthanded goal); 3. RFD Michael Leighton (W, 23 saves).
Western Conference Semifinals
2-Grand Rapids Griffins vs. 4-Rockford IceHogs
Game 1 – Wed., May 6 – GRAND RAPIDS 5, Rockford 3
Game 2 – Fri., May 8 – GRAND RAPIDS 5, Rockford 1
Game 3 – Wed., May 13 – ROCKFORD 4, Grand Rapids 1
Game 4 – Thu., May 14 – Grand Rapids at Rockford, 8:00
Game 5 – Sun., May 17 – Grand Rapids at Rockford, 5:00
*Game 6 – Tue., May 19 – Rockford at Grand Rapids, 7:00
*Game 7 – Wed., May 20 – Rockford at Grand Rapids, 7:00
*if necessary... All times Eastern