Last night, the Syracuse Crunch hosted the Grand Rapids Griffins for game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals. After having gone down 3-0 in the series, Syracuse battled back to win two and force game 6. The 3-0 series lead proved too much for the Crunch to overcome, though, when the Griffins took the lead and eventually the game. It was the first Calder Cup for Grand Rapids since they joined the AHL during the 2001-2002 season. It was also there first ever appearance in a Calder Cup Final series.
The series started off strong for the Grand Rapids Griffins. Coming into the Calder Cup Finals, Syracuse had only lost one postseason game. But, the Griffins changed that when they won games 1 and 2 in Syracuse. The Crunch had to head to Grand Rapids down 2-0 in the series and try to make up ground if they wanted to become Calder Cup Champions. If they had managed to win the series, it would be the second straight championship for the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Despite a close game, the Griffins took game 3 on their home ice in front of over 10,000 fans. Going into game 4, Grand Rapids had an entirely unexpected chance to sweep Syracuse to take home the Calder Cup. But with their backs against the wall, the Crunch showed that they were not ready for their season to end just yet. It was a little bit rougher game and Syracuse pulled off the 3-2 win to keep their hopes alive.
Game 5 was the final game that Grand Rapids would host and the Griffins hoped to close off the series on their home ice. Once again, they took the ice in front of over 10,000 fans at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. The shots were 42-22 in favor of the Griffins, yet what really matters is the final score. The Crunch took the game 5-2 and sent it back to Syracuse. They showed how dangerous they are on the power play, going 2-for-5 with the man advantage that game.
With a chance for the Griffins to end the series, the Crunch came out battling. Richard Panik scored his 9th of the postseason to send Syracuse into the first intermission up 1-0. In the second frame, the Griffins would manage to tie the game on a goal from Mitch Callahan before taking the lead on a goal from Tomas Tatar. It was the 15th time Tatar had put the puck into the back of the net during the postseason to lead all skaters. Crunch defenseman Andrej Sustr tied the game back up five minutes into the final frame and that was as close as the game would get.
Veteran defenseman Brennan Evans, who went goalless during the regular season, scored his second goal of the playoffs for the Griffins. It ended up being the game-winning goal as his team became Calder Cup Champions. In the final minute of the game, the Griffins netted not one, but two, empty net goals. The first came from Tatar for his second of the game and 16th of the playoffs. The final goal came from Joakin Andersson with just 6 seconds remaining in the game.
It was easy to see the excitement as the Griffins celebrated their win. Grand Rapids did not have much, if any, experience being part of a Calder Cup final, let alone winning. This was also the first season for Head Coach Jeff Blashill and he was able to lead his team to a championship, as he had in his first year as a USHL head coach. On the other hand, a good portion of the Crunch players won the Cup following the 2011-2012 season as a part of the Norfolk Admirals.
Unsurprisingly, Tomas Tatar earned MVP honors after registering 16 goals to lead the league in the playoffs. He finished tied for second in overall scoring with 21 points, behind Ondrej Palat of the Crunch who put up 26 points. It was an explosive playoff run for Tatar.
The biggest key to the success of Grand Rapids seemed to be the difference in the number of goals. During the first 12 playoff games for Syracuse, the team allowed 23 goals. During the final 6 games, the Crunch allowed 22 goals. With the significant increase in goals scored, the Crunch just were not able to pull out the wins. But both teams should be proud of their playoff runs. Unfortunately for all of us AHL fans, we now have to start the countdown to next season.