Calder Cup Finals: Grand Rapids Griffins hold off Syracuse, win first AHL crown

Ted Starkey

The Syracuse Crunch pushed back hard, but in the end, the Grand Rapids Griffins held them off and won their first Calder Cup title.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The Grand Rapids Griffins put a bow on a rather unique season of the American Hockey League Tuesday night, skating around with the Calder Cup for nearly an hour in Syracuse's historic War Memorial Arena following their 5-2 win to clinch the franchise's first title.

The series ended one filled with twists and turns, as the team the Griffins beat for the title, the Syracuse Crunch, were largely comprised of members of last year's Calder Cup squad -- the Norfolk Admirals -- who relocated to Central New York when the parent Tampa Bay Lightning changed affiliates this past summer.

So while the Crunch's trip to the Calder Cup Final was a first for the franchise, it certainly wasn't seen as such by many of its players.

"When you don't win the Calder Cup, it is a failure to us," Syracuse captain Mike Angelidis -- who won a Cup with the Admirals -- told reporters under the stands of the building as the audible celebrating of the Griffins could be heard. "We lost. There is nothing good about it. We have to learn from this, I guess. We know what it takes to win. We fell a little short. We have to take a look at what we did wrong and guys will learn for next year."

Across the rink and under the stands on the opposite side of the building, the scene was much different, as even well after the Cup was handed out, players returned to the ice to take pictures with their teammates and family, and the scent of champagne wafted through the air as the team celebrated the culmination of 100 games' work with a Detroit farm team's first title since the Adirondack Red Wings captured the Cup in 1982.

And it certainly wasn't lost on those watching the pure joy of capturing a title unfolding on the sheet as the clock wound down. As the clock wound down, the enthusiasm was evident on the Grand Rapids bench as players jumped around and mobbed each other in the corner following the final buzzer.

"Excuse me," Griffins Jeff Hoggan told during the celebration, preferring to watch his teammates skate with the trophy. "This is what it's all about. This is the best part."

The road for Grand Rapids took a bit of a detour, as after the Griffins won the first three games of the series and seemed poised to skate with the Calder Cup in Michigan, Syracuse rallied to bring the series back to New York with wins in Games 4 and 5, and played in front of a loud sellout crowd at War Memorial Arena.

Syracuse, which had lost just one game in the first three rounds of the playoffs and rolled into the final with an 11-1 record, seemed to be hitting their stride just in time, with a lot riding for both teams heading into Game 6. Should Grand Rapids let a 3-0 series lead evaporate, it seemed unlikely they could turn around Game 7. And of course, for Syracuse, a win was a must to keep their hopes of a title alive.

Many Crunch fans were surprised the team would get another chance to skate on home ice after the best season in the franchise's history, so 6,375 packed the aging barn in the hopes Syracuse could be the second team this playoff to erase a 3-0 series deficit to advance.

Syracuse scored first, but Grand Rapids seemed to sense needing to right the ship in the second period, taking a 2-1 lead into the final frame. The Crunch scored early in the third fueled by a desperate flurry to send the crowd into a frenzy, but just before the halfway point of the frame, Brennan Evans unleashed a long shot that ended up in the back of the net, and gave the Griffins their first-ever crown.

The AHL season began back in September with camps and roster dotted with young NHL stars, creating a unique setup and talent level. As the year progressed, the lockout ended and those players returned to their clubs in January, but the hockey played on as a bit of a shift took place as teams who had been boosted by lockout additions sagged a bit while others took advantage.

As NHL teams fell by the wayside, they returned some of those players to their teams, as Grand Rapids got a boost when Detroit was eliminated in the second round by Chicago.

The long journey finally ended on June 18th - the latest an AHL season has ever lasted - with one team having the time of their lives, while the other knew what they were missing out on.

After the Crunch watched the celebration unfold waiting for the handshake, they saluted the fans and departed the ice. While the Griffins continued to skate with the Cup, one member of the Crunch walked out of the team's dressing room, took a glance at the celebration on the ice, sighed, looked down and turned around and headed back in the room as his long summer began.

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