HOUSTON, Texas – In one of the best performances by an opposing netminder in Grand Rapids Griffins playoff history, Darcy Kuemper stopped all 36 shots he faced on Friday to lead the Houston Aeros to a 3-0 win at the Toyota Center in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Returning to the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years, the Griffins suffered their first postseason shutout since April 19, 2007. Only two playoff foes – Cleveland’s Ian Gordon in 2000 (38) and Chicago’s Kari Lehtonen in 2004 (37) – made more saves against Grand Rapids then Kuemper, who was 2-2 with a 1.72 goals against average and a 0.942 save percentage in four games versus the Griffins during the regular season.
The Griffins, now 3-2 all time in Game 1 of a best-of-five series, will take another shot at the Aeros in Game 2 at the Toyota Center on Sunday at 6:05 p.m. EDT.
The Aeros out-shot the Griffins 13-8 during a scoreless first period that was highlighted by several huge hits – including a thunderous early check by Erik Haula on Triston Grant between the player benches – and solid play by both Petr Mrazek and Kuemper. Mrazek helped deny Houston’s two power play tries during the frame, while Kuemper turned away Grand Rapids’ best scoring chance with 33 seconds left, getting his shoulder in front of a shot from a wide-open Riley Sheahan in the high slot.
Kuemper stopped another 15 Griffins shots in the second period while his teammates built a two-goal cushion, starting when Marco Scandella blew a wrist shot past Mrazek’s glove from the top of the left circle during a power play at the 11:55 mark. About two minutes later, Kuemper denied several point-blank chances during a 4-on-3 Grand Rapids advantage, before Justin Fontaine scored on a breakaway with 3:08 remaining. Steven Kampfer sprung Fontaine at the Griffins’ blue line with a 100-foot pass from deep in Houston’s zone, and when the puck rolled off Fontaine’s stick as he moved in on Mrazek, it rolled between the rookie’s pads to put the Aeros ahead 2-0 entering the third period.
The Griffins, who during the regular season were 3-16 overall and 3-9 on the road when trailing after two periods, failed to capitalize on a power play with 7:13 remaining, then they were not afforded another power play two minutes later despite Chad Rau catching Nathan Paetsch flush in the face with a high stick while clearing the puck out of the Houston zone.
Coach Jeff Blashill pulled Mrazek for an extra attacker with 3:15 remaining. After the Griffins put sustained pressure on Kuemper, Fontaine beat a gassed Adam Almquist to an iced puck and shot it into the empty net from the right boards at 18:14.
Mrazek, who finished with 27 saves, became the second rookie goalie to start the Griffins’ first game of a playoff season (Jimmy Howard in 2006) and the third to start any playoff game for Grand Rapids (also Mathieu Chouinard in 2001).
Three Stars: 1. HOU Kuemper (W, 36 saves, shutout); 2. HOU Fontaine (two goals); 3. HOU Scandella (power play goal)
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