GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Grand Rapids Griffins on Saturday washed away the bitterness of a frustrating and controversial 4-3 overtime loss to the Peoria Rivermen by finally tasting the sweet fruits of their season-long labors, as the Midwest Division leaders secured a berth in the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs thanks to Milwaukee’s 3-1 loss to Rockford.
An intense game that featured three fights and an animated shouting match between the head coaches concluded with Peoria scoring late in regulation for the tie and then only 20 seconds into overtime. The Rivermen (33-32-4-3), who’ve been eliminated from playoff contention, won their seventh straight in the season series, but the point earned by the Griffins (40-25-4-4) ultimately clinched their first postseason appearance since 2009.
Grand Rapids is now within two points of claiming the Midwest Division title, which would be its first division crown since the 2005-06 campaign. The Griffins, whose first-round opponent is still to be determined, will conclude their regular season home schedule by hosting a rematch with the Rivermen next Friday, April 19 at 7 p.m. before finishing their slate with a pair of road games.
After a scoreless opening period, Peoria’s Andre Bouvet-Morrissette whipped a shot past Petr Mrazek from the slot just 43 seconds into the middle frame.
The Griffins, who had totaled three goals while dropping the first two games of their homestand, were the beneficiary of two Landon Ferraro tallies just 20 seconds apart midway through the frame. Jeff Hoggan threw the puck at the net from the right goal line and Ferraro crashed the crease to put it under Mike McKenna at 9:13, before Ferraro potted a rebound into a yawning cage from the left of the net to give Grand Rapids its first lead in more than 149 minutes played at home this week.
The cushion lasted less than five minutes, though, as Jani Lajunen converted an Andrew Murray pass during a goal-mouth scramble at the 14:23 mark.
Francis Pare completed a “Gordie Howe hat trick” and restored the Griffins’ lead at 3-2 early in the third, stuffing the puck inside the left post from below the goal line at 4:07 and setting the stage for the controversial finish.
With the Rivermen on a power play with less than three minutes remaining in regulation, Evgeny Grachev drove to the net with the puck before losing it in a sea of bodies in the crease. Referee Terry Koharski kept his whistle in check while Andrew Murray spent several moments trying to dig the puck out of the pile before finally popping it free to Taylor Chorney for the equalizer with just 2:29 remaining.
In the opening seconds of overtime, Tomas Tatar carried the puck up the middle of the ice but was taken down by a trip and lost the puck just inside the Peoria blue line. With play continuing, Jani Hakanpaa darted up the right side and fired a wrist shot from above the circle that took an odd bounce and managed to slip past Mrazek just 20 seconds into the extra session.
Grand Rapids out-shot Peoria 32-27 on the night, with McKenna’s 29 saves besting Mrazek’s 23.
Three Stars: 1. PEO Hakanpaa (game-winning goal); 2. GR Ferraro (two goals); 3. GR Pare (goal, assist)
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