June 11, 2013
by Mark Newman - griffinshockey.com
Their beards, like their personal development as players, are a work in progress.
The playoff grooming of the youngest Griffins may not be the most suave or smoothest, but the growth shown by the team’s first-year players on the way to the Calder Cup Finals has been remarkable.
For players like Chad Billins, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco, Petr Mrazek and Riley Sheahan, a little hair on the face is a badge of honor, a visible sign of the growth that they have shown this season under the direction of Jeff Blashill, who is in his first year as a head coach at the professional level.
The 2012-13 season has been a process of maturity for the Griffins’ rookies, and overseeing the whole process has been both a challenge and a joy for Blashill, who came to Grand Rapids after one season as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings.
Blashill has been like a clean-shaven barber, trimming the Griffins’ roster to the select group of guys who can make the organization look good in its first appearance in the AHL’s Calder Cup championship round.
“He’s been only getting better, just like a lot of the players,” said team captain Jeff Hoggan, the one player on the Griffins’ roster to have previously won the Calder Cup (2003 with Houston). “He says the right things at the right time and says the right things to the right guys at the right time.”
The Griffins might look like a scraggy bunch, but Blashill brings a team into the finals that is dressed for success. In his words, the Griffins are “battle-tested” and need to be “ready to play right off the drop of the puck.”
The reality is that the difference between success and failure in the playoffs, especially the finals, is razor-thin. A good first impression is critical. The Griffins scored the first goal in Game 1 and Game 2 victories at Syracuse.
“Momentum in a game is always a big thing,” Blashill said, “so if you can jump to a lead in any game, that’s a positive. But the one thing we know is you don’t win the game in the first 10 minutes or first period. You win it over the course of 60 minutes, and sometimes 60-plus.”
Blashill has been preaching about the “process’ all season long, and his young players have listened.
“Every minute of every game is really important,” said Jurco, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 against Oklahoma City to send the Griffins to the Calder Cup Finals. “We’ve been working really hard all season and to get here is really exciting. It’s a great feeling for everybody on this team.”
Jurco said he is trying to look at the finals as just another round of the playoffs, but the 20-year-old rookie, like his teammates, realizes it’s an opportunity to shine.
“It’s a special moment and we’ve got to take advantage of it,” Billins said. “It’s what you dream about as a kid. To be able to get this far and have this opportunity is pretty special, and we’re going to embrace it.”
“I’m just trying to enjoy the ride,” Glendening said. “Of course we still have one step we’re trying to make.”
“We’re obviously happy to be here,” Sheahan said. “All of our series have been a battle and we don’t expect anything different in the finals. (Hopefully) hard work and intensity will pay off.”
The playoffs are pressure-packed for any player, let alone rookies who are untested and unfamiliar with the challenge, but Blashill has done his best to groom his young players for the task at hand.
“We’ll focus no differently than we always do,” Blashill said. “You focus on the process. You don’t think about what could happen or what might happen. You focus on your job and you go out and play and you enjoy the moment.”
Nobody is going to enjoy the moment more than rookie goaltender Mrazek, who has previously excelled at the World Junior level. Blashill has shown that he has all the confidence in the world in his young netminder.
“Petr Mrazek is someone who thrives on pressure. He loves pressure. Most people don’t, but he loves pressure – that’s probably his greatest attribute,” Blashill said. “We’ve been in some real pressure situations already this season – win or go home – so he’ll handle it great.”
Mrazek said he is doing his best to stay rested. And while the Griffins had not faced Syracuse this season before meeting the Crunch in the finals, Mrazek was unfazed by the challenge. “It doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “(In the playoffs), every team is trying to go hard to the net.”
The Griffins will do the same. “It’s about finishing checks and those little parts of the game that don’t always come into play during the regular season but get amplified in the playoffs,” Glendening said.
The rookies have not had to look far for guidance. Hoggan and his fellow veterans Brennan Evans, Triston Grant, Nathan Paetsch, Francis Pare and Brett Skinner have been setting the tone for their young teammates.
“Our leadership has been unbelievable,” Sheahan said. “The older guys have taken us under their wings and have shown us how to be a successful team.”
“The veteran guys have done a great job of keeping us close,” Glendening said. “Our team has great chemistry and that’s what has carried us so far.”
Getting to the finals is a great accomplishment, but the Griffins’ rookies are not going to be satisfied by just getting to within a whisker of a championship. At this point, a close shave just won’t do.