GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Andreas Athanasiou’s goal 5:05 into overtime on Friday put the icing on a third-period comeback and gave the Grand Rapids Griffins a 3-2 victory over the Utica Comets, tying the best-of-seven Western Conference finals at two games apiece.
A throng of 8,967 – by far the largest crowd to ever attend a conference finals game at Van Andel Arena – witnessed a tale of two Jensens in the final moments. As Comets forward Nicklas Jensen tangled with Tom McCollum in the crease after a Utica scoring chance, drawing the attention of most in the building, Griffins defenseman Nick Jensen was chipping the puck out of the zone to a streaking Athanasiou, who got a stride on the last Utica defender before deking to his backhand and stuffing the puck past the toe of Jacob Markstrom and inside the left post.
The win gave the Griffins momentum going into Sunday’s crucial Game 5 at 5 p.m. at Van Andel Arena and ensured that a Game 6 will be played in Utica on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Xavier Ouellet opened the scoring by tallying the Griffins’ fifth power-play goal of the series off a beautiful feed from Dylan Larkin 5:48 into the second period. From the right corner, Larkin threaded a centering pass through traffic to Ouellet, who popped a shot under the crossbar.
Utica answered with its own power-play marker just over two minutes later, as Alex Friesen worked through two defenders before ripping the puck past McCollum’s glove from the left hashmarks at 8:01.
Seven minutes later, McCollum put his blocker on Mike Zalewski’s breakaway attempt to maintain the deadlock, but Cory Conacher eventually gave the Comets that 2-1 lead with 3:48 left in the frame, snapping a shot inside the left post from the slot.
Early in the third period, a four-minute Griffins advantage resulting from a high-sticking infraction by Wacey Hamilton was shortened by a call on Nathan Paetsch for holding the stick of Brendan Gaunce, who had just escaped punishment for tackling Paetsch to the ice while clobbering him in the back of the head.
Unfazed, the Griffins tied the score during the resulting 4-on-4 on a goal by Anthony Mantha, who drove the net to pot a pass from Athanasiou at the 5:44 mark.
Both teams had their chances down the stretch of regulation, with Teemu Pulkkinen ringing a blast off the right post with four minutes left and Paetsch lunging with his stick to break up a Utica 2-on-1 with less than three minutes remaining. But the Griffins headed to overtime for the second time during the postseason and the first time at Van Andel Arena, following their 2-1 win in Game 4 of the conference semis in Rockford on May 14.
McCollum ended the night with 34 saves, including five during overtime, while Markstrom logged 22 stops.
GAME NOTES: Tonight's attendance of 8,967 was 3,142 larger than the previous Griffins record for a conference finals game (5,825 for Game 5 of the 2000 IHL Eastern Conference finals). … The Griffins are 3-2 all time and 1-1 under coach Jeff Blashill when tied 2-2 in a best-of-seven series, with the victory coming two years ago in the conference finals against Oklahoma City. … Grand Rapids will play into June for just the third time in franchise history, after winning the Calder Cup in 2013 and losing in the IHL’s Turner Cup finals in 2000.
THREE STARS: 1. GRG Andreas Athanasiou (OT goal, assist); 2. GRR Xavier Ouellet (power-play goal); 3. UTI Jacob Markstrom (L, 22 saves).