By Beau Jensen, griffinshockey.com
Two of the Grand Rapids Griffins’ top performers this season will make their way to Utica, N.Y., tomorrow for the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Turning Stone Resort Casino. Forwards Matt Puempel and Matt Lorito are set to represent their team as well as the Central Division in Sunday’s All-Star Skills Competition and Monday’s All-Star Challenge.
The East will take on the West for Sunday night’s skills competition in seven different events. Monday’s All-Star Challenge is a round-robin tournament where the teams with the two best records will play for the championship.
Puempel, appearing for the first time as an AHL All-Star, is the Griffins’ leading scorer even though he joined the team later in the season after being traded from the New York Rangers on Oct. 21. The way Puempel has been able to contribute effectively on a new team has been impressive, and he credited that easy transition to the guys in the locker room.
“The coaching staff and the guys have helped the transition,” Puempel said. “Anytime you come to a place where you don’t really know the guys and you don’t really know what to expect system-wise, it takes a little bit of time, but the transition was pretty easy with the staff we have here and they helped me a lot.”
Puempel has amassed 37 points in 36 AHL games this season, which includes 34 points in 31 appearances with Grand Rapids. Puempel is tied for the most Griffins’ goals this season with 16 while second only to Ben Street (24) in assists with 21.
The All-Star Challenge will be played in a 3-on-3 format, which fits both Puempel and Lorito’s smooth skating and dynamic offensive styles.
“When they changed the format a couple years ago, it was a little more open, but now teams have learned how to play 3-on-3 on a regular basis,” Puempel said. “I think it’ll be fun and exciting to fans who enjoy that a lot more than a typical game, so I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a lot of fun and a good match.”
Lorito will be making his second appearance as an AHL All-Star. He’s going to have to bring his A-game if he wants to top last year’s exciting performance, when he scored the deciding goal in the fourth round of the shootout to give the victory to the Central Division in the championship matchup. Lorito’s looking forward to the chance at another exciting weekend of fast-paced hockey with some of his Central Division teammates.
“Last year was a lot of fun, I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was a good weekend overall,” Lorito said. “3-on-3 is a lot of fun, it didn’t really get too serious until the finals, so I think everyone was just there having a good time.”
Lorito and Puempel will be teaming up with league rivals like Mason Appleton from the Manitoba Moose, Matthew Highmore from the Rockford IceHogs and T.J. Tynan from the Chicago Wolves. Even though the Griffins are gunning to take those teams’ spots in the playoff picture, Lorito said that he enjoys getting on the ice with these guys for a couple days.
“It’s nice being able to go with the other guys in your division because we play them so often,” said Lorito. “When you get to talk to those guys, you find out that they’re all nice guys, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Puempel and Lorito are in action tonight before they head off to New York as the Griffins take on the Rockford IceHogs at 7 p.m. at Van Andel Arena.