GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - The Utica Comets scored three times in a span of 9:33 during the opening period on Sunday before climbing onto the back of Jacob Markstrom and holding on for a 3-2 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals at Van Andel Arena.
Markstrom recorded 32 saves, several of the spectacular variety, to help Utica withstand the Griffins' 34-21 shot advantage and improve his record following a loss this postseason to a perfect 7-0.
Now up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, the Comets will host Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7 this Tuesday and Wednesday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium at 7 p.m. each night. Grand Rapids is 3-0 this postseason and 5-1 all time under coach Jeff Blashill when facing elimination.
The Comets built a 3-1 lead before 12 minutes had elapsed. Wacey Hamilton scored on a deflection against Tom McCollum at 2:14 but was answered by a power play goal at 4:20 by Mark Zengerle, who popped a loose puck into the far corner from the right circle.
Utica again pulled ahead at the 6:07 mark. McCollum stretched to get his right toe on a puck that was kicked toward the net by Brandon DeFazio, but Hunter Shinkaruk crashed the net to tap home the rebound. Exactly 5:40 later, a shot from the right circle by Bobby Sanguinetti ramped off the skate of Brennan Evans and into the top of McCollum's cage, and the Comets eventually skated off with a 3-1 lead despite a 14-9 deficit in shots.
Grand Rapids dominated the second period but had nothing to show for it until the final minute of the frame. An early scoring chance ended with Tyler Bertuzzi falling on Markstrom during a scrum, and the netminder continued to be a central figure, diving to his right to deny Ryan Sproul's point-blank shot at a yawning net before stopping a Bertuzzi-Teemu Pulkkinen 2-on-0 caused by an egregious giveaway by Utica defenseman Frank Corrado.
The Griffins subsequently failed to score during 1:37 of 5-on-3 power play time, but their frustration was alleviated during another advantage with 46 seconds left in the period, when Dylan Larkin lifted a sharp-angle shot over Markstrom's left shoulder from the right circle to make it a 3-2 game entering the final 20 minutes. For the period, Grand Rapids held a 12-4 shot advantage, bringing the game margin to 26-13.
The shots evened out with eight per side during the third but the Griffins still enjoyed the most chances, including a backdoor try by Larkin with 2:20 left, a blast off the pipe by Nathan Paetsch with 45 seconds remaining and a Markstrom glove save on Sproul 20 seconds later, the latter two of which occurred with McCollum pulled for an extra attacker. The Utica goalie stood strong throughout the deluge, though, to backstop the Comets to within one win of their first appearance in the Calder Cup Finals.
McCollum, who logged 18 saves on the night, will bring his 4-0 record following a loss this postseason into Tuesday's Game 6.
Notes: In AHL history, the winner of Game 5 has gone on to win 107 of the previous 131 best-of-seven series that were tied 2-2 (81.7%)...Grand Rapids, which in the conference quarterfinal against Toronto became just the 11th team in AHL history to win a best-of-five series after trailing 0-2, has lost all four previous series in which it trailed 2-3, most recently in last season's conference semis against Texas. The Griffins forced a Game 7 only once in that situation, falling in the decisive contest on home ice to Houston in the 2003 conference finals...Tonight's attendance of 7,415 was second only to Game 4's 8,967 among the 19 conference finals home games in Griffins playoff history.
Three Stars: 1. UTI Markstrom (W, 32 saves); 2. UTI Gaunce (two assists); 3. GR Larkin (power play goal)
This was a frustrating loss because the Griffins actually outplayed the Comets most of the game, and it was the best they've played against Utica all series. Rather than playing the boring low event game that Utica wants, the Griffins came out with jump, energy, and excellent offensive zone presence. The Griffins outshot the Comets 34-21, and had approximately 1,623 scoring chances that either hit the posts, the crossbar, or Jacob Markstrom absolutely robbed them of.
The Comets scored 3 goals on their first 7 shots in the 1st period, and when you go down 3-1 in the 1st period to the team with one of the top goalies in the AHL, and whose entire game revolves around their stellar goalie and shut down defense, that's a tough spot to be in. I'm not putting all the blame on McCollum here, but it's incredible frustrating to know that your goalie is usually good for 1-2 soft goals per game. That puts a lot of pressure on the forwards, and if the defense breaks down or makes mistakes, McCollum isn't going to bail them out very often. In this goalie goalie battle the Griffins are outgunned, outmatched, and laughably undermanned. Far too many games in these playoffs have had the "McCollum let in a couple bad goals but then he 'shut it down' and gave his team a chance to win" narrative. Well, bad games happen for every goalie, and bad goals are going to happen, but when it's this frequently it's incredibly frustrating, especially when we lose. This is a game the Griffins deserved to win based on their play, and between their early deficit and so many missed opportunities, including a 5on3 powerplay that was poo, it was a one goal game where the Griffins came up short.
Lines remained the same, but with Zach Nastasiuk replacing Marek Tvrdon on the 4th line.
|Teemu Pulkkinen||Dylan Larkin||Jeff Hoggan|
|Tyler Bertuzzi||Andy Miele||Mark Zengerle|
|Kevin Porter||Andreas Athanasiou||Anthony Mantha|
|Zach Nastasiuk||Louis Marc Aubry||Colin Campbell|
|Nathan Paetsch||Xavier Ouellet|
|Brian Lashoff||Nick Jensen|
|Brennan Evans||Ryan Sproul
Louis-Marc Aubry - Zach Nastasiuk
Brian Lashoff - Nick Jensen
Kevin Porter* - Andreas Athanasiou
Nathan Paetsch - Xavier Ouellet
*Dylan Larkin replaced Porter on the PK when Porter was in the box.
Tyler Bertuzzi - Andy Miele - Mark Zengerle
Teemu Pulkkinen - Nathan Paetsch
Anthony Mantha - Andreas Athanasiou - Kevin Porter
Xavier Ouellet - Ryan Sproul
It's clear the team misses Alexey Marchenko on the back end and hopefully his "day to day" "upper body" injury heals up quickly. Ryan Sproul has done well being back into the lineup with Marchenko out, and I'd personally keep him in when Marchy comes back. Brennan Evans missed most of the 2nd period and played 1 shift in the 3rd period, though he was on the bench the entire time. Even if he's not officially injured, I'd sit him and keep Sproul in, assuming Marchenko can play on Tuesday. If Marchenko and Evans are both out, Scott Czarnowczan would be the defenseman I'd bring back in.
Zach Nastasiuk made his return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion on April 26th. Tomas Nosek still remains sidelined with his own concussion from a hit in game two of this series. Being without both Nosek and Marchenko are tough losses for the team and it's a tough time to be missing them. There's another worrisome thing I've noticed. Andreas Athanasiou isn't taking faceoffs, despite being the center on his line. It's been 3 games since I noticed it, but Kevin Porter takes the faceoffs and if he's kicked out, Anthony Mantha comes in and takes them. The only thing I can conclude from this is that Athanasiou is hurt because he's usually good on faceoffs and there's no way Porter and Mantha would be taking them if AA was ok.
The Griffins need to win both remaining games in Utica to advance to the Calder Cup Finals. Can they beat Utica twice in enemy territory? You bet they can! In order to do that however, McCollum is going to have to be better (or better yet put Jared Coreau in) and the defense is going to have to step it up, tighten it down, and make damn sure they take care of their own end. The Griffins are only down 1 game in the series but every game between them and Utica has been close, and there are going to be no easy wins for Grand Rapids. The Griffins won three straight elimination games against the Toronto Marlies, but this will be much tougher. I never count the Griffins out of anything because this is a pretty amazing team who always seems to come through when they need to, I hope that trend continues. Game 6 is Tuesday night in Utica and hockey gods willing, game 7 will be Wednesday night, also in Utica. Let's hope we haven't seen our last game in Van Andel arena this season.