Grand Rapids, Mich. - Heading into the their second-round series against the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Rockford IceHogs knew that finding a way to contain forward Teemu Pulkkinen would be a key. Now, one game into the Western Conference Semifinals, the IceHogs learned what could happen if they don't.
A hat trick performance by Pulkkinen gave Grand Rapids a 5-3 victory over the IceHogs Wednesday night at Van Andel Arena, giving the second-seeded Griffins a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals is scheduled for Friday night in western Michigan.
The American Hockey League's most prolific goal scorer from the regular season bagged his seventh, eighth and ninth goals of the Calder Cup Playoffs, the latter helping stymie a spirited third period comeback from the IceHogs. After Rockford goals from Stephen Johns and Garret Ross evaporated a 3-1 Griffins lead to start the third period, Pulkkinen stamped an exclamation point on his big night when he put his team up for good with 2:46 left on the clock.
An IceHogs breakout stalled on the red line, allowing Grand Rapids to hit the attacking zone with speed and a 3-on-2 rush. Tomas Nosek carried the puck down the left wing and found Pulkkinen unmarked on top of the goal crease. A simple redirection was all the Finnish forward needed to beat IceHogs netminder Michael Leighton for the third time on Wednesday, in just his third shot of the night. Pulkkinen finished the regular campaign with 34 goals in only 46 games, and scored six times over the Griffins' five-game round one victory over the Toronto Marlies before adding three more in Wednesday's Game 1.
The go-ahead goal helped bail out the home team at a time Rockford had taken over the game in the final period, scoring twice to tie the game at three and keeping the Griffins without a shot until past the 8:00 mark.
After playing the role of overtime hero in the IceHogs' series-clinching win against Texas a week ago, Stephen Johns played a catalyst for his team's third-period rally with a goal and an assist. The rookie defenseman made it 3-2 when he stepped down from the blue line to deliver a laser through traffic and over the glove of Tom McCollum at 3:16.
Just over six minutes later another Johns shot evaded McCollum, this time thanks to a net-front deflection from forward Garret Ross. The tip-in gave Ross his second goal of the playoffs, and a two-point night after picking up the primary assist on a second-period goal by Mark McNeill.
Where a pair of successive goals helped the IceHogs climb out of a 3-1 hole, it was two-straight by Pulkkinen late in the second that created the deficit. The 2014-15 AHL First Team All-Star converted twice in 3:23, both times thanks to assists by Tyler Bertuzzi and fellow First Team All-Star Andy Miele.
Grand Rapids took a 2-1 lead at 13:05 of the middle frame when Pulkkinen picked up a Bertuzzi feed with a head of steam, and split through the Rockford defense before sliding a shot five-hole on Leighton. The unit connected again at 16:28 off a neutral zone face-off, and another nice pass from Bertuzzi. The rookie picked up a loose puck off the draw, drove down the right half wall, and set up Pulkkinen in the slot. After playing only two games with the Griffins in the regular season, Bertuzzi has notched five points (2g-3a) in four Calder Cup Playoff games.
McNeill's first goal of the postseason tied the game at one apiece near the halfway point of the second. After forcing a turnover deep in the Grand Rapids zone, Ross sent a perfect spinning pass to McNeill at the hash mark, who hammered a one-timer past McCollum. Despite the game's end result, the unit of McNeill, Ross (+1) and Phillip Danault (+2) all still finished with an even rating or better.
The hometown Griffins accounted for the only tally in a wide-open first 20 minutes that saw each team fire 14 shots on net. Kevin Porter marked his first point of the playoffs after cashing in on a failed clearing attempt by the IceHogs. After Andreas Athanasaiou jarred the puck loose on the left wall, Anthony Mantha found Porter down low who snuck a backhander past Leighton to open the scoring only 2:01 into the contest.
Porter would add another point in the final stages of the game, when he assisted on an empty net goal from Louis-Marc Aubry to increase the Griffins lead to 5-3 with 18 seconds left on the clock.
Leighton falls to 3-1 in the playoffs, surrendering four goals on 28 shots faced. On the other side McCollum picked up his fourth-straight victory, stopping 34 of 37 Rockford attempts; 24 of 25 through the first two periods.
As was the case in the regular season series between the two Midwest Division rivals, special teams hardly played a factor in Game 1. Both sides came up empty on the power play, Rockford going 0-for-5 and Grand Rapids finishing 0-for-3.
The IceHogs will try to even the series when the teams reconvene for Game 2 Friday night at Van Andel Arena, with a puck drop scheduled for 6 p.m. The Western Conference Semifinals then shifts to Rockford for Games 3-5 at the BMO Harris Bank Center, if necessary.
Next Home Game: Wednesday, May 13, Western Conference Semifinals - Game 3, vs. Grand Rapids Griffins. Face-off is at 7 p.m. The IceHogs will return home to the BMO Harris Bank Center for Game 3 when the best-of-seven series shifts to Rockford. The first 2,500 fans will receive a rally towel courtesy of BMO Harris Bank. The festivities will begin prior to puck drop during a Pregame Block Party, sponsored by Swedish American Hospital starting at 4 p.m.