The best of the west (literally) will meet in the Western Conference final as top seeds Utica Comets will play second seeds Grand Rapids Griffins.
Utica have certainly had to work hard to get to this point, having gone to a deciding game in both series thus far. Finally overcoming Chicago in five games, it was Oklahoma City Barons who pushed Utica all the way and Edmonton’s former affiliate took game one in the fourth period of overtime.
In a series contest that saw five of the seven games decided by a solitary goal, the Comets closed out the Barons 1-0, in a game seven where both goaltenders were fantastic.
It’s no surprise when you consider Utica’s success this season has been down to their fantastic defensive record. Jacob Markstrom had a terrific regular season campaign in his quest to make it back to the NHL full-time and he’s continued that form into the post season with a GAA of 1.85 and a 0.930 save percentage. His play and worth to Utica, was perfectly encapsulated in the game seven victory against OKC, where he recorded a shutout and made some stellar saves as the Barons piled on the pressure late in the third period.
At the other end of the ice, Utica have relied heavily on Alexandre Grenier to lead the way.
All his four goals came in Barons series and included an OT winner in game two and the only goal in game seven. Can you say clutch? With six assists also to his name, Grenier is Utica’s leading point scorer but some familiar names have also come to the party. Cal O’Reilly was an assist machine during the regular season and it’s been no different during his teams playoff run with nine helpers to his name.
Alex Friesen and Sven Baertschi both have eight points while defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti has acquired seven as Utica continue to be a team scoring by committee.
Grand Rapids Griffins however, have the most potent offense in the West and perhaps the most effective goalscorer in the AHL in the shape of Teemu Pulkkinen. The man with the cannon for a shot has 13 goals ten games with five of those tallied on the man advantage. Teeing up Pulkkinen most often is Andy Miele, who has ten assists to go along with his three tallies. Rookie Tyler Bertuzzi is making a name for himself with six goals, of which four have been the deciders thus far. He’s not the only youngster making hay though as RW Mark Zengerle has eight assists while Andreas Athanasiou and has electric speed has proven potent, no more so than in their first round victory over Toronto.
They’ve also bolstered their ranks by signing 2014 Detroit first round pick, Dylan Larkin to an amateur tryout. The centre man put pen to paper on a entry-level contract with the Red Wings after returning from the (IIHF) World Championship with the United States.
Perhaps Grand Rapids weakest point would be in net as Tom McCollum is certainly no Jacob Markstrom but has played well since game four of the series with Toronto.
He will be sorely tested by a Utica team who have the best shot differential during these 2015 playoffs.
The Griffins got to this point by coming back against Toronto in five games where home advantage finally proved key and then efficiently disposing of a fine Rockford team in just five games, that many, myself included, would be a lot tighter and go further.
The Comets and Griffins met only twice during the regular season, where both won their home games with relative ease. Grand Rapids home form will be key to their chances of making the final, as they’ve yet to lose a game in Michigan, out-scoring opponents 23-11 in the process. As you might expect, Utica’s goal-scoring record is far more reserved, averaging just 2.33 to the Griffins 3.7, but on the flip side only giving up 2.16 goals per game.
It’s the second seeds who also hold sway coming into this series when it comes to special teams.
A powerplay running at 22% with nine powerplay goals in ten games, Grand Rapids have a habit of tallying on the man advantage when it really matters during these playoffs. Utica are averaging a powerplay goal every other game whilst their penalty kill has been beaten ten games in their twelve games. Grand Rapids penalty kill statistics are bolstered a little by facing Toronto’s terrible powerplay but they were a force to be reckoned with during the regular season. Allowing opponents only five powerplay makers so far and less than four opportunities per game to score with the extra man.
With 600 miles separating the two teams, it’s an “AHL” format for this series with Grand Rapids playing their three home games consecutively after the series opens in Utica. If required, games six and seven will head back to NY state.
Utica were able to quell OKC Barons potent offense in the last round and this series will hang on whether they can do the same thing to Pulkkinen and company. My gut is that this will be a tight series but that Utica’s lack of ability to consistently put the puck in the net might hamper them in their quest to reach the Calder Cup final in just their second season of existence.
In what should be a fascinating battle of styles and match-ups (Markstrom v Pulkkinen for one), my head is saying that the Griffins will be heading back to the finals for the second time in three years.
Western Conference Finals – Series “N” (best-of-7)
1-Utica Comets vs. 2-Grand Rapids Griffins
Game 1 – Sun., May 24 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00
Game 2 – Mon., May 25 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00
Game 3 – Thu., May 28 – Utica at Grand Rapids, 7:00
Game 4 – Fri., May 29 – Utica at Grand Rapids, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sun., May 31 – Utica at Grand Rapids, 5:00
*Game 6 – Tue., June 2 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00
*Game 7 – Wed., June 3 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00