By Jason Pearson, griffinshockey.com
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The scent of champagne in the visitors’ locker room has long since vanished, but the memories will remain forever. To three Grand Rapids Griffins in particular — Mitch Callahan, Brian Lashoff and Nathan Paetsch – those recollections have come flooding back and will be rekindled as many as three times this week.
Erected in 1951 and nestled on State Street between Harrison and Adams in downtown Syracuse, War Memorial Arena might as well be located on Memory Lane, as it holds a significant piece of Griffins history.
On June 18, 2013, the Griffins won the city of Grand Rapids’ first-ever hockey championship with a Game 6 victory over the favored Syracuse Crunch at the War Memorial. Paetsch was in his first year with the Griffins at the time and served as an alternate captain. Lashoff was in his second Calder Cup Playoffs and had spent time in Grand Rapids since the 2008-09 campaign, while Callahan was in his second season and experiencing his first pro playoff run.
That same hostile environment in Syracuse will again serve as the backdrop as Grand Rapids looks to repeat history. As the Griffins arrived at the War Memorial for a Tuesday afternoon practice in preparation for today’s Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals, which they lead two games to none, it brought back plenty of good memories and smiles for the Griffins’ trio.
“Last time we had a little bit of a celebration here, so obviously this rink brings back good memories for a lot of guys like me, Paetscher and Lash,” Callahan said. “I think I mostly flashed back to when we got to the rink and the changing room is separate from the locker room. Going through all the scenic routes of the rink here brought back memories.”
The 2013 team deflated the Crunch three times on their home ice during the finals. To put that into perspective, Syracuse had only one other loss at home during its postseason run.
“The most I remember about it was the yelling. It’s a loud rink,” Lashoff, an alternate captain this season, recalled about the War Memorial. “The fans are right on top of you.”
The Griffins were still able to find success playing in front of over 6,000 steep-seated adversarial partisans. As far as what exactly enabled the road triumphs in a difficult and unique setting, that depends on who is asked.
“I think we kept it simple. We came out and played fast, we didn’t overcomplicate things,” said Lashoff. “We shot the puck from everywhere. Those are the same things we have to do the rest of the way (this week) to have success.”
“All the guys wanted to win for each other. We have a really close group here right now, but that 2013 team might have been the tightest group of hockey players I’ve ever played with in my life,” Callahan added.
“(Goaltender) Petr Mrazek was a big part of that,” said Paetsch, now the team’s captain. “That first game we came in here, I think he really stole it for us, and that just built up a confidence in this building and we moved on from there.”
Fast forward to now. While the roles are slightly reversed – Grand Rapids had home-ice advantage to begin the 2017 series compared to starting on the road in 2013 – the ultimate prize is once again attainable while the team stays in Upstate New York. A pair of wins at any point over the next three games and four days would earn Grand Rapids its second Calder Cup championship in five seasons.
Syracuse, however, will present a rigorous test, especially on home ice. The Crunch are 9-0 inside friendly confines over the course of their 2017 run, and including the regular season, have not lost at home in regulation since March 24.
“The guys are going to have to be prepared to play through the loud crowd, the boos, the chants or whatever might happen,” Paetsch said. “They were tough in our building. Now they’ve got the home-ice advantage with the fans behind them so it’s going to be really difficult.”
Grand Rapids has played an ultimate team game throughout its 2017 postseason run as evidenced by four deep lines, six reliable defensemen and solid play between the pipes.
“We have to play good road games,” Lashoff said. “We have to keep it simple, we have to play hard off the start and try to be consistent throughout 60 minutes every single game. If we can do that, play simple and funnel a lot of pucks on net, and be quick out of our own end, I think we’ll have success.”
Add in the experience element that always becomes a key player the later into June a team plays.
“Experience is so valuable for you in the playoffs and we’re going to rely on those three guys to help our young guys out,” head coach Todd Nelson said.
The Griffins are eyeing another potential Syracuse celebration, one that would create a War Memorial memory for all of their players.