GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Nathan Paetsch snapped a shot into the left corner of the net during the 10th round of the shootout on Saturday to give the Grand Rapids Griffins a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs at Van Andel Arena.
After Tom McCollum and Hamilton’s Dustin Tokarski each stopped eight of their first nine shooters, Paetsch put the Griffins ahead and McCollum stoned Morgan Ellis on the other end to seal the victory and ignite the crowd of 10,006.
With their first point earned by virtue of the tie at the end of regulation, the Griffins (45-21-2-4, 96 pts.) clinched at least a top-four playoff seed and home ice in the upcoming Western Conference Quarterfinals. Grand Rapids, which continues to lead Chicago by seven points in the Midwest Division race, will face road tests on Thursday and Sunday in Charlotte before returning for its regular season home finale on Friday, April 18 versus Lake Erie.
After receiving March’s Huntington Player of the Month award prior to faceoff, Andrej Nestrasil appropriately scored the game’s first goal just 3:03 in. He set up shop in front of Tokarski and redirected Paetsch’s shot from the point just inside the left post.
That goal held up for more than 40 minutes, until the Bulldogs (31-33-1-6) notched the equalizer during a power play 3:52 into the third. From behind the net, Maxime Macenauer managed to stuff the puck between McCollum’s left skate and the post.
With 5:40 remaining, Hamilton’s Drew Schiestel was whistled off on a double-minor for high-sticking Louis-Marc Aubry, but the Griffins could not capitalize on their four-minute power play despite possessing the puck in the Bulldogs’ end for nearly all of the advantage.
The game progressed to overtime, where Grand Rapids was still unable to dent Tokarski even though it enjoyed a 5-1 shot advantage, including a point-blank blast by Paetsch that the netminder swallowed at the buzzer.
Of the first 18 shooters in the skills competition, only Teemu Pulkkinen in round four and Hamilton’s Patrick Holland in a do-or-die fifth-round attempt were able to put anything past the two stellar goalies. McCollum finished the game with 22 saves while Tokarski registered 36 in the hard-luck loss.
Notes: Tonight’s attendance of 10,006, combined with the pre-sale for their April 18 home finale, guarantees that the Griffins will finish with their highest average attendance since the 1999-00 season (8,819) and their first 8,000-plus attendance since 2000-01 (8,022), which was their final season of IHL membership. Grand Rapids, which has also eclipsed the 300,000 mark in total attendance (301,521) for the first time since 2000-01, currently ranks second in the 30-team AHL with an average attendance of 8,149.
Three Stars: 1. GR Nestrasil (goal); 2. HAM Tokarski (SOL, 36 saves); 3. GR Paetsch (assist, shootout-clinching goal)