GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Teemu Pulkkinen notched the seventh playoff hat trick in Griffins history on Wednesday and became the team’s all-time leading postseason goal scorer, as Grand Rapids took Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals with a 5-3 triumph over the Rockford IceHogs at Van Andel Arena.
Pulkkinen’s third goal of the night, a backdoor tally with 2:46 remaining off a Tomas Nosek pass, broke a 3-3 tie before Louis-Marc Aubry added the nightcap into an empty net with 18 seconds left.
The Griffins, who tied a franchise playoff record with their fourth consecutive home victory, have won all seven previous best-of-seven series in which they led 1-0, including three during the team’s run to the 2013 Calder Cup. They’ll host Game 2 against the IceHogs on Friday at 7 p.m.
Kevin Porter’s first point of the playoffs staked the Griffins to a lead just 2:01 into the contest. Off a feed from Anthony Mantha, he tried an innocent-looking backhand from the bottom of the left circle that slipped past NHL veteran Michael Leighton.
Leighton’s counterpart, Tom McCollum, was tested by a wild Rockford flurry around his cage several minutes later, but thanks to his timely saves and the deft handiwork of a stickless Nosek to clear the puck from the crease during an IceHogs scoring chance, the Griffins preserved their early lead.
The IceHogs scored off a turnover in the Griffins’ slot 8:41 into the second period. After Nosek’s pass bounced off the stick blade of Nathan Paetsch on the doorstep, Garret Ross quickly fed Mark McNeill for a one-timer at the left hashmarks that McCollum had no chance on.
Grand Rapids regained the upper hand on a beautiful effort by Pulkkinen with 6:55 left in the frame. Taking a pass from Tyler Bertuzzi in the neutral zone, Pulkkinen quickly split defensemen Kirill Gotovets and Keith Seabrook, bore in on Leighton and snapped home a shot to notch his league-leading seventh goal of the postseason.
No. 8 came just 3:23 later, as Pulkkinen ripped a shot through the sliver of daylight between Leighton and the left post to give the home squad a 3-1 advantage heading into the third. That tally also placed Pulkkinen in the pantheon of Griffins goal scorers, as his 16th career postseason tally matched Derek King and Tomas Tatar for the most in franchise history.
Stephen Johns cut the margin to one goal 3:16 into the third, picking the far corner with a wrister from the left faceoff dot, then earned an assist on the equalizer when his blast from the right point was tipped past McCollum by Ross at the 9:20 mark.
The Griffins, who appeared on track for their first overtime contest of this postseason, avoided it on Pulkkinen’s 17th of his playoff career and ninth in just six postseason games this spring. Already, only four players in franchise history have scored more goals during a single playoff year, led by Tatar’s 16 as playoff MVP two years ago.
McCollum turned in another rock-solid performance in net, making 34 saves to join Marc Lamothe (April 16-29, 2003) as the only goalies in franchise history to log four consecutive playoff wins at Van Andel Arena. Leighton finished with 23 stops on the other end.
GRIFFINS NOTES: Pulkkinen’s 25 career playoff points now tie Travis Richards for third in team annals. He stands three shy of Jiri Hudler and 16 behind King, now an assistant coach for the Toronto Marlies squad that he helped vanquish during the Griffins’ historic round-one comeback.
THREE STARS: 1. GRG Teemu Pulkkinen (hat trick); 2. GRG Tyler Bertuzzi (two assists); 3. RFD Stephen Johns (goal, assist)