Six of them are now full-time NHLers and more than a dozen have since played in the league. But exactly five years ago today, they took part in perhaps the greatest victory in Griffins history.
On May 16, 2006, the Griffins and Manitoba Moose met at Van Andel Arena for Game 7 of the North Division Finals, with a berth in the Western Conference Finals at stake. The Moose had evened the series at three wins apiece with a 3-1 win the previous night and were intent on bouncing the AHL’s regular season champions from the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Anxiety was running high as the night began but the hockey gods ensured that injuries would not tip the scale in favor of either team. Both Donald MacLean, who had set a Griffins record with 56 goals and been named the AHL’s MVP, and Manitoba goaltender Wade Flaherty, the 2004 Calder Cup MVP, were missing from the lineup.
Grand Rapids 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, Jiri 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 partial breakaway 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 slap shot 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.
Down 4-1 and having pulled their rookie phenom from the pipes, the Griffins were facing a challenge from which they had never previously rallied in the playoffs. But they kick-started their comeback a split second before the second-period horn during a power play, as Bryan Helmer’s rocket from the left circle found the back of the net with just 0.5 seconds showing on the clock.
Grand Rapids, which had twice rallied to beat the Moose during the 2005-06 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 the decisive goal by limiting Manitoba to one shot in the third period, the only attempt MacIntyre had to stop in 22:02 of work.
With overtime looming in the final minutes, Darryl Bootland popped another Hudler pass into a wide-open net with 2:06 remaining, as the Griffins answered Manitoba’s four straight goals with four of their own to steal an amazing 5-4 victory, marking the greatest comeback in Griffins playoff history.
Grand Rapids’ first-ever Game 7 win propelled it into its fourth conference final in seven seasons and cemented the postseason legacy of Hudler, who set a Griffins playoff record with five assists and tied a mark with five points. His three helpers during the third tied another team standard for assists in a playoff period, and his eventual totals of 22 points and 16 assists still stand as Griffins records for a single postseason.
But in the end, it was truly a team effort accomplished by one of the greatest Griffins rosters ever assembled, which featured current NHL regulars Hudler, Filppula and Howard of the Detroit Red Wings, plus Tomas Kopecky (Chicago), Brett Lebda (Toronto) and Kyle Quincey (Colorado). Not counting the injured MacLean, who would log nine games with the Phoenix Coyotes the following season, there were seven other future NHLers in Grand Rapids’ lineup that glorious evening, including Bootland, Ellis, Helmer, Ryan Keller, MacIntyre, Derek Meech and Clay Wilson.
For a continued stroll down memory lane, click here for the official game report from the historic game.
Alumni news and notes:
- Detroit Red Wings happy with goalie Jimmy Howard’s postseason play (MLive)
- Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard excels in playoffs (Detroit Free Press)
- Video: Season’s end interview – Abdelkader (Red Wings)
- Grading the Detroit Red Wings: See how players rated this season (MLive)
- What’s next for the Red Wings? (Detroit News)