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December 2008 Grand Rapids Griffins Report
Griffins surge comes from unexpected sources...
By Jason Kasiorek
January 1, 2009

It is not surprising that the Grand Rapids Griffins are in first place in their division and conference at the end of December. The surprise is in who has stepped forward this month to lead the team there. Two relative unknowns on AHL contracts and a forgotten prospect have combined to give the Griffins one of the hottest lines in the AHL. Francis Pare has gone from frequent scratch to potent offensive catalyst paired with speedy Francis Lemieux and Evan McGrath on a line that has produced 31 points in 11 games together. On the blueline, last years disappointing rookie, Jakub Kindl posted 11 points in 12 games and came up big in the absence of Jonathan Ericsson and Garrett Stafford. Depth defensemen Jason Jozsa and Sergei Kolosov also took big steps forward to become regulars.

In the net, Daniel Larsson's incredible play has eclipsed starter Jimmy Howard, struggling yet again with consistency. Larsson turned in back to back shutouts and has not lost in regulation since the beginning of November, racking up 12 wins in 16 decisions. The two goaltenders also turned in a hot streak with 4 shutouts in 6 games to end the month.

Arguably the hottest team in the AHL with an 8-1-1-0 record in the last ten games, the Griffins rode an 8-2-2-0 December to a tie at the top of the Western Conference, 2 points behind the league leading Hershey Bears. The Griffins are first in the Northern Division with a two point lead over the Manitoba Moose. Grand Rapids also boasts the leagues 3rd best offense, scoring 118 goals in 34 games.

The following is a review for December:

OFFENSE - The Grand Rapids offense has been clicking in December, scoring just under 4 goals per game. The de facto number one line of Pare, Lemieux and McGrath has been on fire posting 14 goals and 31 points for the month. The second trio of Ville Leino, Justin Abdelkader and Jamie Tardif produced 9 goals and 21 points and looked to be gaining momentum towards the end of the month. Cory Emmerton centered Mattias Ritola and Captain Darren Haydar accounting for 11 goals and 10 assists, but had some difficulties defensively. Darren Helm anchored the fourth line with Ryan Oulahen and Aaron Downey, shipping in 7 goals and 13 points while providing a physical grinding presence. Rookie Jan Mursak and defensive forward Aaron Gagnon have been frequent scratches most of the month.

December Thumbnails:
Player GPGAPTSPIM+/-ShtsNotes
Francis Pare 9 5 7 12 0 12 23Freshman Phenom turning heads.
Francis Lemieux 10 5 5 10 8 13 22Veteran winger making the most of his opportunities.
Evan McGrath 11 4 5 9 0 7 19Points come after adding grit to game.
Darren Haydar 12 4 5 9 8 -4 28AHL sniper still off of his game.
Darren Helm 11 5 3 8 4 -1 25Inconsistency plagues otherwise solid campaign
Ville Leino 12 4 4 8 2 1 17Slick puckhandler finds game again.
Mattias Ritola 11 4 3 7 12 -1 26 Puck magician struggles with consistency.
Jamie Tardif 12 4 3 7 4 5 29Dependable winger keeps opposition honest.
Justin Abdelkader 10 1 5 6 20 1 24 Power forward progressing well.
Cory Emmerton 12 3 2 5 4 -1 25Rookie playmaker runs out of steam.
Ryan Oulahen 15 3 2 5 2 1 23Versatile checker shows value.
Jan Mursak 4 0 2 2 0 0 4Lack of effectiveness leads to press box.
Aaron Downey 12 0 2 2 28 2 10Veteran grinder provides physical play and more.
Aaron Gagnon 8 1 0 1 2 0 6 Lost competition for final lineup spot.

DEFENSE - The defense has started to gain traction, turning up the offense with 3 goals and 27 assists in 12 games led by the emerging Kindl. They have also tightened up defensively, with some of the younger blueliners taking steps in their development, most notably Jozsa and Kolosov. This was impressive considering big guns Ericsson and Stafford missed significant time due to injury. When healthy Ericsson was paired with Jozsa, Kindl with Tom Galvin, and Kolosov split the month paired with Logan Pyett and Stafford. PJ Atherton saw a few games in spot duty before injuring a knee.

December Thumbnails:
Player GPGAPTSPIM+/-ShtsNotes
Jakub Kindl 12 1 10 11 16 -1 20Offensive game on-line, defense coming.
Jason Jozsa 10 0 5 5 4 7 9 Went from spare part to regular with strong stretch.
Garrett Stafford 5 1 3 4 0 3 8Veteran D-man brings offense after injury return.
Jonathan Ericsson 5 1 1 2 6 2 9Injuries helped derail December for top prospect.
Logan Pyett 9 0 3 3 4 4 15 Unable to unseat anybody in top six.
Tom Galvin 12 0 2 2 6 -1 10Steady rearguard improving on shaky start.
Sergei Kolosov 12 0 2 2 6 4 9 Hulking blueliner continues to improve.
PJ Atherton 3 0 1 1 2 0 5 Injury replacement ended up injured himself.

GOALTENDING - Daniel Larsson continued his meteoric rise up the league leader board this month, racking up 5 wins in 6 starts with a stingy 1.99 GAA and an amazing 94.1% save percentage. The Swedish cage guardian also posted 2 more shutouts to take the league lead, and close in on the franchise record of 6 in a season held by Mike Fountain, Marc Lamothe, Joey MacDonald and Jimmy Howard. Howard on the other hand has continued his roller coaster ride of inconsistency, turning in several dominant performances book-ended around some stinkers. Howard compiled a record of 3-2-1-0 with a 2.33 GAA and 91.7% save percentage, posting his first two whitewashes of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS - The Grand Rapids penalty killing units have grabbed hold of first place in the league, killing off 87.6 of the opposition powerplays. They have given up only 8 powerplay goals on home ice, a 91.6% rating. They are a middle of the pack 13th on the road having killed 61 of 74 chances (82.4%). Leino, Helm, Oulahen, Tardif, Abdelkader and Ritola are constants up front, with a steady rotation on defense.

The powerplay has climbed up to 5th in the league, boasting a 19.9% scoring percentage (37 for 186). The road unit (7th at 20.3%) continues to be slightly better than the home (12th at 19.6%). The Griffins routinely roll 3 powerplay units, and 13 different players have scored with the man advantage so far. Forward Darren Haydar usually mans the point on one of the units paired with either Kindl or Ericsson, and leads the team with 8 powerplay goals.

PLAYER OF THE MONTH - Frankie Pare and Daniel Larsson. A rarity here, this month sees co-players of the month. Pare has jump started the club's offense, and had a great month leading the team in scoring despite only playing 9 of 12 games. He is a heady offensive player who is responsible in all three zones, and has drawn the interest of the parent Wings who have shown interest in an NHL contract. Larsson has made the adjustment to the smaller rinks and is showing that the future is now. This month he stopped over 94% of the shots he faced, and earned points every start, winning all but one. The other sparkling statistic is that he keeps getting better, posting a lower GAA and Higher save percentage every month. His last four starts, all wins, included two shutouts, a 1.00 GAA, and a 97.1% SP.

ROOKIE WATCH - Atherton scored his first point of the season in limited action before being felled with a knee injury. Pyett saw some regular ice time early in the month with several defensemen on the injured list and looked to be slowly improving. He lost his regular spot in the rotation with the return of Ericsson and Stafford. Kolosov continues to improve his game, upgrading his intensity and consistency and was rewarded with a regular spot in the lineup as well as some time on special teams, excelling in particular on the penalty kill. Mursak found himself on the outside looking in as he finally lost his spot in the lineup due to the hot play of Pare and Lemieux. Emmerton's play tailed off in December and he appeared to hit the wall. Abdelkader continues to play a valuable two-way role providing some offense and a lot of grit. Pare and Larsson both turned in dominant months, leading the club in club in scoring and wins respectively.

CURRENT INJURIES - D PJ Atherton - Knee, Unknown...

NOTEABLE MOVEMENT - D Chris Chelios assigned by Detroit (NHL)... Chelios recalled by Detroit... D PJ Atherton recalled from Ontario (ECHL)... D Brett Peterson recalled from Phoenix (ECHL)... Peterson re-assigned to Phoenix...

KEY STATS - Darren Haydar is tied for 19th with 13 goals and 5th in powerplay goals with 8... Landon Wilson is 13th with 7 powerplay goals... Francis Pare is 14th in the league in Plus Minus at +13... Darren Helm is tied for 3rd with 2 shorthanded goals... Ryan Oulahen is tied for fourth with 2 shorthanded assists... Haydar is tied for 13th with 3 game winning goals... Pare is tied for 1st with 4 insurance goals... Haydar is tied for 6th with 4 first goals and Jakub Kindl is tied for 15th with 3... Mattias Ritola is tied for 3rd with 2 unassisted goals... Pare is 18th in the league in shooting percentage at 21.4%... Justin Abdelkader is 10th in rookie scoring, and Frankie Pare is tied for 16th... Abdelkader is tied for 5th in rookie goal scoring with 10... Kindl is 5th in AHL defenseman scoring with 22 points... Garrett Stafford is tied for 16th with 17 points... Daniel Larsson is tied for 6th in wins with 12, 1st in shutouts with 4, 5th in GAA at 2.32, and 4th in save percentage at 92.3%...

IN THE PIPELINE - Defenseman Brett Peterson who has retired and un-retired this season, was an emergency call up at the end of the month, but was returned to Phoenix (ECHL) without playing in a game.

NHL ALUMNI WATCH - Bryan Helmer became the latest former Griffin to resurface in the NHL last month, notching eight impressive games with the Washington Capitals. His recall brought the number of GR alumni who have seen a game in the NHL this season to 30. Current stats as of 1/1/09:

PlayerGP G A PTS PIM +/-
Sean Avery, Dallas (NWT) 23 3 7 10 77 2
Sheldon Brookbank, Devils 15 0 0 0 25 1
Wade Brookbank, Carolina 27 1 0 1 40 0
Pavol Demitra, Vancouver 28 11 9 20 4 1
Mark Eaton, Pittsburgh 29 1 1 2 22 1
Matt Ellis, Buffalo 13 1 0 1 2 -1
Valtteri Filppula, Detroit 36 5 11 16 26 5
Darren Helm, Detroit 3 0 0 0 0 0
Bryan Helmer, Washington 8 0 3 3 2 1
Shane Hnidy, Boston 33 2 6 8 34 9
Jiri Hudler, Detroit 36 13 16 29 2 4
Chris Kelly, Ottawa 35 3 5 8 30 -5
Krys Kolanos, Minn 7 1 1 2 82
Tomas Kopecky, Detroit 36 2 4 6 18 -5
Niklas Kronwall, Detroit 35 2 15 17 28 -3
Brett Lebda, Detroit 32 2 5 7 26 1
Darren McCarty, Detroit 13 1 0 1 25 -2
Derek Meech, Detroit 16 1 2 3 6 -4
Glen Metropolit, Philadelphia 33 1 8 9 9 -2
Chris Neil, Ottawa29 2 1 3 88 -9
Kyle Quincey, Los Angeles 34 2 18 20 28 2
Jason Spezza, Ottawa 35 15 13 28 26 -4
Todd White, Atlanta 37 12 21 33 10 -4
Jason Williams, Atlanta 35 7 10 17 8 -7
Clay Wilson, Columbus 5 0 1 1 0 -2
Landon Wilson, Dallas 17 1 6 7 12 5

PlayerGP W-L-T GAA
Patrick Lalime, Buffalo 9 2-5-1 3.09
Joey MacDonald, Islanders 32 10-18-4 3.25
Drew MacIntyre, Nashville 0 0-0-0 0.00

UP NEXT - The Griffins start out the New Year on the road with rare matches in Hartford and Manchester before returning home for a three game set featuring the Rockford Ice Hogs, and a pair against the Philadelphia Phantoms. Then it's off to Hamilton to take on the Bulldogs, a quick return home against the arch-rival Moose and then a pair in Rockford. Grand Rapids finishes the month with a five game home stand featuring the Marlies, a pair against Quad City, and two more games versus Rochester.