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ONE FOR THE AGES

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Darryl Bootland popped a Jiri Hudler pass into a wide-open net with 2:06 remaining on Tuesday to lift Grand Rapids to an incredible 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Manitoba Moose in Game 7 of the North Division Finals at Van Andel Arena.

Down 4-1 in the waning moments of the second period, the regular season champions scored the game’s final four goals to mark the greatest comeback in franchise playoff history and will themselves into their fourth conference final in the last seven seasons. The Griffins will face the Milwaukee Admirals in the Western Conference Finals, beginning with Games 1 and 2 at Van Andel Arena this Thursday, May 18 and Saturday, May 20.

Hudler set a Griffins playoff record with five assists and tied a mark with five points, with linemates Bootland (one goal, three assists) and Valtteri Filppula (two goals) the primary beneficiaries of his playmaking.

The hockey gods ensured that injuries would not tip the scales in favor of either team on this night, as 2006 AHL MVP Donald MacLean and 2004 Calder Cup MVP Wade Flaherty were missing from the lineups of the Griffins and Moose, respectively.

Grand Rapids, now 6-0 in the postseason when scoring first, notched the crucial first goal against Flaherty’s understudy, Maxime Ouellet, 7:01 into the contest. With the Griffins enjoying extended puck possession during a delayed penalty, Hudler collected a dump-in behind the net and sent a feed into the slot that landed on the stick of Matt Ellis, who roofed a shot through a crowded crease.

With less than four minutes left in the period, Jimmy Howard stopped a mini-break by Ryan Bayda to preserve the lead. But at the 17:52 mark, Mike Keane beat Howard stick-side with a blast from the top of the right circle, making it a 1-1 game at intermission.

The Moose took their first lead during a power play exactly two minutes into the second period, when Kevin Bieksa’s blast from the right point was redirected by Jason Jaffray past Howard. It became a 3-1 cushion for the visitors at 4:35, as an uncovered Jesse Schultz took a pass from Craig Darby and slammed a shot into the cage from the left circle.

Another Manitoba power play goal, on a slapshot by Jason King with 2:08 left in the period, increased the Moose’s lead to three and ended the night of Howard, who went to the bench in favor of Drew MacIntyre after making 19 saves.

The Griffins began their rally a split second before the intermission horn during a power play. Bryan Helmer’s rocket from the left circle found the back of the net with just 0.5 seconds showing on the clock, pulling Grand Rapids within 4-2. The goal was the first for a Griffins defenseman in 12 playoff games.

Grand Rapids, which twice rallied to beat the Moose during the regular season when trailing by two goals, made it a one-goal game just 2:15 into the third. Valtteri Filppula took a backhand pass from Hudler and snuck a shot over Ouellet’s shoulder from the right circle, igniting the Van Andel Arena partisans.

The Griffins continued to apply the pressure, netting the equalizer when Filppula backhanded the puck across the line during a scramble in front of the Moose net at 7:32. Grand Rapids’ defense then set the stage for Bootland’s game-winner, limiting Manitoba to one shot in the third period, the only attempt MacIntyre had to stop in 22:02 of work.

Grand Rapids claimed the first Game 7 win in franchise history and won a series at home for just the second time ever, dating to the 2000 IHL Eastern Conference Finals against Cincinnati.

With his five points, Hudler moved past Travis Richards into second on the team’s all-time playoff scoring list with 27 points (7-20—27) in 16 games.


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