GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Coming into this weekend’s series against the Iowa Wild, it had been 13 days since the Grand Rapids Griffins stepped on the ice to play a game. To make things even more of a challenge, they had to play with 14 forwards and four defenders.
How does a coach even begin to set lines in this situation? For Head Coach Ben Simon, slotting forward Dominik Shine into the defensive lineup was an easy choice. Why? Well, according to Simon, “Dominik Shine has played defense a little bit in the past. Kind of intermittently; sporadically, not in the course of the full game.” As the coaches began to assess the rest of the available roster, one forward became the clear answer to turn into a defender for the night: Tyler Spezia. “With just his ability to skate, his speed that he can get back on pucks quickly,” said Coach Simon. “He plays somewhat fearless at times. So he’s not afraid to go back and get hit and make plays with the puck under pressure.”
In the eyes of forward Jarid Lukosevicius, the new lines felt natural. “It felt kind of normal,” Lukosevicius said. “Shiner (Shine) and Speez (Spezia) did a really good job of moving the puck up and playing really good defensively.”
From forward Dominic Turgeon’s perspective, the mindset of how the players viewed the way the game would be played didn’t change one bit. “To be able to make a goal, you have to play the hardest you can and try to get out there and win,” explained Turgeon on keeping the same train of thought. He then went on to praise Shine and Spezia for how they played. “Big props to those guys. I thought they did a hell of a job back there. Things worked out really well.”
So, what made this abnormal roster work well for the Griffins? Communication. “I think at the end of the day, you have to have talk and communication,” explained Coach Simon on the importance of being vocal with one another. “I think a little bit of talk and sorting things out, identifying when to move the puck, what’s open, and where your support is just makes the game a heck of a lot easier.”
For much of Friday’s tilt, the Griffins played a simple but solid game. Their quick skating and fearless attitude made the neutral zone a dangerous place for the Wild. This allowed the Griffins to take the 3-0 lead by the time four minutes had melted off the clock in the third. But then, near the halfway mark of the period, something ignited within the Wild. In the span of 36 seconds, they scored three goals. Then Iowa took the 4-3 lead with 5:19 to play.
What happened to the Griffins? They were playing incredibly well up until the middle of the last period. Coach Simon chalks it up to the little mistakes Grand Rapids made at the wrong time. “The whole game is predicated on mistakes, and the less mistakes you make, usually you have a better chance of winning the game,” explained Simon. “We made some mistakes at inopportune time, and they’re an opportunistic group with a lot of good goal scorers.” He expanded upon this sentiment stating, “If you make mistakes and don’t get pucks out and turn it over, they (Iowa) are going to make you pay for it.”
Luckily, the Griffins were able to dig deep and score two quick ones towards the end of the game to take the 5-4 win over the Wild. “At the end of the day, we found a way to come back, score two goals, and get the win. It definitely was a crazy third period,” Turgeon said of the comeback win.
On Saturday night, the Griffins had another hurdle to jump over to reach the finish line. This time it was a short bench. Yes, Grand Rapids ended up playing with four true defenders and 17 players in total. Despite all of this, the Griffins looked like a good team. The plays they drew up were strong and borderline deadly. Their grit and determination paired with speed and skill helped the Griffins push Saturday’s game into overtime. The Griffins didn’t get the ending they wanted losing to the Wild, 4-3. However, there were a lot of good things to take from the weekend series. “I thought our compete level was excellent in both games. We had some guys playing in different situations. Different positions, let alone different situations,” stated Coach Simon. “I loved our compete level. I liked our work ethic. I liked our resolve.”
One of the good things to come out of the weekend was the Griffins phenomenal penalty killing. On Saturday, they gave a typically good Wild power play complete fits. Not only did the Griffins successfully kill off five penalties, they also maintained control of the game while on a two-man disadvantage. “I think progressively from the start of the year to where we are now, guys are getting a little bit better,” explained Coach Simon. “Some of our guys in the backend, like Donovan Sebrango, did a tremendous job.” Sebrango was brought up because the defender spent two minutes on two separate kills messing up every single play the Wild drew up. His body clogged up lanes and his stick found it’s way onto multiple pucks.
Coach Simon also made sure to give credit to netminder Kaden Fulcher on the PK. Fulcher, who played in his first game since January 4, 2020, pulled out all the stops when the Griffins were down a man. “Well, the best PK guy is your goalie, and I thought he did a great job,” said Simon of Fulcher’s play on the PK. “ He made a lot of key saves at big points in the game. So, he should be proud of his effort tonight.”
This weekend was the last time Iowa and Grand Rapids would see each other for the rest of the 2020-21 season. Most coaches would be glad to get rid of a team that was consistently a pain in the butt to play against. However, Simon isn’t most coaches. If he had his way, the two teams would battle it out more often. “It’s unfortunate we don’t see these guys more because I think they do a good job of driving the pace and driving our compete level,” explained Coach Simon.
The Griffins aforementioned level of compete, especially against teams like the Wild, gives Coach Simon little to no concern about how the season will play out. “I’m not concerned,” stated Coach Simon. “What’s there to be concerned about? There’s ebbs and flows in every game.” He expanded a bit more saying, “To stay in the battle, to maintain that compete level. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Needless to say, the Griffins are well prepared for whatever lies before them for the rest of the season.