Behind a pair of goals by Eric Tangradi and 30 saves from Tom McCollum, the Grand Rapids Griffins clawed out a 3-2 victory over the Tucson Roadrunners on Wednesday at Van Andel Arena.
Despite being outshot 32-22 by the Pacific Division leaders, the Griffins (31-19-1-6, .605) earned their first-ever win against Tucson (29-17-3-1, .620) in two tries. After improving its remarkable records to 12-1-0-2 in its last 15 games and 21-4-0-3 in its last 28, Grand Rapids has moved back into second place in the Central Division, pushed its winning percentage over .600 for the first time this season, and pulled within six points (75-69) of first-place Manitoba – which it trailed by 23 points (47-24) when the puck dropped on Dec. 22.
The Griffins will close out a six-game homestand with two contests this weekend, beginning with Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup against a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins squad that will make its first visit to Grand Rapids since the 2008-09 season.
After missing the last six games due to injury, Matt Puempel needed all of 49 seconds to make his presence felt and help the Griffins jump on top. Along the right boards at center ice, Puempel pushed the puck ahead to Ben Street, who led a 2-on-1 into the Tucson zone before centering a pass that Tangradi pounded past Hunter Miska.
Street singlehandedly staked Grand Rapids to a two-goal advantage less than six minutes later. From the left half-wall, Trevor Murphy tied to lift the puck out of the Roadrunners’ zone on his backhand, but Street gloved it down at the point, skated in a few strides and blew a wrist shot over Miska’s glove from the top of the circles at 6:13.
Miska found measures of redemption later in the period to keep the margin at two, sticking out his left pad to stifle a breakaway by Evgeny Svechnikov with 6:15 remaining and stopping a snap shot by Dan Renouf during a rush 25 seconds later.
The Roadrunners solved McCollum at the 14:10 mark of the second period to halve their deficit, as Dylan Strome – the third overall pick by Arizona in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft – converted a pass from Nick Merkley on the back door.
Jens Looke tied it for Tucson with 1:47 remaining in the frame. Left alone just outside the crease with his back to McCollum, he collected the rebound of Mike Sislo’s shot from the right point and quickly jammed a backhand inside the left post.
McCollum showed his mettle just over a minute into the third to preserve the 2-2 score, flashing to his left to turn aside Merkley’s attempt to finish off an odd-man break.
Tangradi, who on the next shift was shaken up after being upended and slamming hard into the boards, tallied his second goal of the night and team-leading 24th of the season at the 8:26 mark to again give the Griffins the lead. Taking a pass from Dylan McIlrath at his own blue line, he worked his way up the left side before launching a shot above the circle that whistled past Miska’s blocker.
Tucson desperately pushed for a late equalizer, pulling Miska for much of the final three minutes, but McCollum and the Griffins stood their ground to improve to 11-3-1-1 in their last 16 home games.
Miska, who finished with 19 saves, suffered just his seventh regulation loss in 22 decisions this season.
Note: With 298 wins as a head coach for Oklahoma City (176) and Grand Rapids (122), Todd Nelson is just two shy of becoming the 20th coach in AHL history to earn 300 regular season victories.
Three Stars: 1. GR Tangradi (two goals); 2. GR Street (goal, assist); 3. GR McCollum (W, 30 saves)