HAMILTON, Ontario – Darren McCarty and Justin Abdelkader each had a goal and an assist and Jimmy Howard made 23 saves to guide the Grand Rapids Griffins to a 4-3 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs in Game 1 of the North Division Semifinals on Friday at Copps Coliseum.
The Griffins, who never trailed en route to winning Game 1 for the first time in their last four playoff series, have already seized home-ice advantage from the higher-seeded Bulldogs heading into Saturday’s Game 2 in Hamilton.
The scoring came fast and furious in the early going, as Griffins goals were twice answered by the Bulldogs to make it 2-2 less than 10 minutes into the game. Mattias Ritola started things off by stealing the puck high in the Hamilton zone, circling around to the right boards and centering a pass that a darting McCarty tipped past Marc Denis at 5:01. But on a rush just 58 seconds later, Kyle Chipchura sent a pass from the left circle across to the right post and J.T. Wyman, who had a step on his defender for an easy tap-in.
Grand Rapids reclaimed the lead at 6:50 on Joakim Andersson’s first North American goal. McCarty took a shot from the right circle that was denied by Denis, but Andersson pounced on the rebound in the left circle and fired a slapshot past the netminder. Hamilton’s Shawn Belle responded at the 9:47 mark, finding a loose puck in the high slot and unleashing a cannon that sailed over a diving Griffin’s block attempt and past Howard’s glove.
The defenses tightened up to keep the next 30 minutes scoreless, highlighted by solid play from each goalie and penalty killing units that stifled two Griffins chances and one Bulldogs opportunity during the second period.
That drought ended only 19 seconds into the third, as Ville Leino circled out to the left of the Hamilton net and threaded a pass through the crease to Abdelkader, who fought through two Bulldogs to redirect the puck inside the right post and give the visitors their third lead of the game.
After Grand Rapids killed off a hooking penalty midway through the period, Abdelkader helped the Griffins extend their advantage to 4-2 with 6:54 remaining. He sped down the left boards and flung the puck on net, enabling Darren Haydar to score his 56th career Calder Cup Playoff goal on a deflection off the shaft of his stick from the left doorstep.
That goal would prove crucial, as Hamilton’s David Desharnais scored during a delayed penalty with 1:52 left to get the Bulldogs back to within one, but the Griffins held on to snap their three-game losing streak against Hamilton.
Denis made 31 saves in the loss, and each team went 0-for-2 on the power play.
The Griffins have won all three previous best-of-seven series in which they won Game 1, most recently in the 2006 North Division Semifinals versus Toronto, and they’ve triumphed in four of the previous six series overall in which they led 1-0.
Grand Rapids will return to Van Andel Arena for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday and, if necessary, Game 5 next Friday, April 24. Tickets for that potential fifth game will go on sale at 10 a.m. Sunday through The Zone, all Star Tickets outlets (800-585-3737) and online through griffinshockey.com.
Three Stars: 1. GR McCarty (goal, assist), GR Abdelkader (goal, assist), HAM Belle (goal)