The AHL’s Western Conference Final is set between the San Jose Barracuda and the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Barracuda and head coach Roy Sommer are both making their first Final appearance in the AHL’s final four. For the Griffins, this is old hat. In three of the last five years, the Griffins have been in the conference final.
The best-of-seven series will kick off on Saturday at SAP Center in San Jose and follow the 2-3-2 format. Breaking down the matchups, this, on paper, this has the hallmarks of a fantastic series.
The ghost of drafts past shows up in the Western Conference Final. Tyler Bertuzzi was the 58th player taken in the 2013 draft, a pick that the San Jose Sharks originally owned but sent to the Detroit Red Wings so they could move up and take Mirco Mueller. That same Bertuzzi (his uncle Todd played a few games for the Red Wings as well) now leads the Griffins in postseason scoring.
Matt Lorito and Ben Street finished one-two in scoring during the regular season and have eight points in eight games. Lorito and Street are in a five-way tie for third in scoring along with Tomas Nosek, Mitch Callahan, and Eric Tangradi, just behind highly-touted prospect Evgeny Svechnikov’s nine points. Kyle Criscuolo, a teammate of Barracuda forward Colin Blackwell last season at Harvard University, is continuing a solid rookie season with depth scoring for the Griffins.
Lorito scores his fourth goal of the playoffs to tie Matt Ford for tops on the team #GoGRG
— Griffins Game Day (@GriffinsGameDay) May 9, 2017
Ryan Carpenter’s playoff performance has been stellar during the Barracuda’s playoff run. He is the AHL’s leading scorer this postseason with 13 points, seven of which have been goals. Right wingers Barclay Goodrow (nine) and Buddy Robinson (eight) are just behind him atop the scoring leaders for San Jose. Danny O’Regan and Kevin Labanc have not returned to their regular season production on the scoresheet but are showing signs of life.
- The Barracuda’s forwards are not producing at the same clip as the Griffins’ big guns. Injuries to Rourke Chartier and Marcus Sorensen do not help things in that department, but Sommer says both are probable for Game 1. Timo Meier will need to continue his physical play that has been a notch higher since returning from the Sharks as well. But getting goals from Colin Blackwell and Adam Helewka help shore up the secondary scoring.
Both the Griffins and Barracuda have 34 goals this postseason, but the Griffins have done it in two fewer contests and with more of it coming from the forwards. The Griffins get the edge here, but it’s not a huge gap by any stretch.
Grand Rapids features the offensively-minded Robbie Russo, but in his own zone, he can be a bit of an adventure. Dylan McIlrath is an imposing presence, but his skating is an area the Barracuda forwards could exploit. Joe Hicketts is a rookie to watch. He is only 5-foot-8 but plays much bigger than that and with an emerging offensive flair and solid defensive play. Vili Saarijärvi‘s season with the Mississauga Steelheads came to a close without a berth in the Memorial Cup, but the skilled Finnish defender will be a dangerous addition to the Griffins’ blue line.
For the Barracuda, the defense is firing on all cylinders. Joakim Ryan and Julius Bergman (seven points apiece) lead the scoring among the blueliners. Bergman, in particular, has looked impressive this postseason, showing a nice touch with the puck and an edge to go with it. Tim Heed’s bombs from the point made their way through during the San Diego series and are always a danger. Jacob Middleton and Nick DeSimone combined to have eight points and have played beyond their years while playing in all 10 games for San Jose.
Like the forwards, there is not a huge separation here. The defensive play coupled with a potent offensive punch give the Barracuda defense the edge.
Much has been made about the struggles against the Stockton Heat (1-for-17) and success against the San Diego Gulls (6-for-17), so the key for the Barracuda is which power play shows up to the third round. The penalty killers have been a consistent 86.5 percent and are always a threat to score.
The Griffins’ power play deploys five forwards on one unit and can crack a game open. Grand Rapids has the best man-advantage that remains in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Special teams are always important, but difficult to count on. However, if the Barracuda cannot carry their hot power play into the third round, that could be trouble.
The Griffins are leaning hard on the 6-foot-6 Jared Coreau in net. Coreau’s play is solid but unspectacular with a .908 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average. It is worth noting that Coreau stopped 31 shots in a 1-0 shootout loss to the Barracuda in March, so he does have some game experience against San Jose to draw from.
Troy Grosenick was a difference-maker in all three games to close out the Gulls. He is the only goalie in the AHL with a pair of shutouts, one of which was the deciding Game 5 against the Gulls. The stat line is impressive with a .920 save percentage and a 2.21 goals-against average. Those improved to a minuscule 0.48 goals-against average, an other-worldly .987 save percentage and a shutout in two victories against Grand Rapids during the regular season.
Grosenick is the AHL goalie of the year, and statistically, this is not close.
Who Will Win?
The Barracuda had a tough time with the size of the Heat in Round 1 but handled the skill of the Gulls fairly easily. Mixing the two together in the Griffins will be a challenge for San Jose, especially the longer the series goes.
@crunchman98 @fitchjr1 Honestly, I have no idea how to pick GR-SJ. Both teams are so good. Could be the real final. I’ll go PRO in six because of goaltending.
— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) May 18, 2017
For the Griffins, it is safe to say they have not run into a goaltender of Grosenick’s caliber or the overall skill the Barracuda possess, especially on defense. If the Griffins cannot slow down the San Jose transition game and protect Coreau, some games could have lopsided scores.
Prediction: Barracuda in Seven
As the adage goes, defense wins championships. The Barracuda have an edge on the blue line and in goal over the Griffins, which will be the difference.