GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Sven Baertschi’s natural hat trick propelled Utica to a 4-1 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Thursday at Van Andel Arena, giving the Comets a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Comets netminder Jacob Markstrom made 40 saves to improve his record following a loss this postseason to 6-0, as Utica reclaimed home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series.
The Griffins, who hadn’t played at home since Game 2 of the conference semis against Rockford 20 days ago, will have an immediate chance at redemption when they host Game 4 on Friday at 7 p.m. The ticket pre-sale for the game is already over 7,000, ensuring that it will have the largest attendance of any conference finals game in franchise history. Sunday’s Game 5 will also take place in Grand Rapids, at 5 p.m. EDT.
Following a scoreless opening frame, Baertschi notched just the fifth playoff hat trick ever allowed by the Griffins and the first in more than eight years. The winger first got ahead of the defense and snapped a shot through Tom McCollum’s five hole from the slot at 3:17, then blasted home a one-timer from the right circle during a power play at 9:35.
Baertschi recorded his third goal in a span of 8:36 by tapping a rebound past McCollum at 11:53, becoming the first opposing player to score three times in a postseason contest since Manitoba’s Jason Jaffray (May 1, 2007) and just the second ever to accomplish the feat at Van Andel Arena, joining Chicago’s Steve Maltais (April 15, 2002). It also marked his fourth consecutive series goal, dating to the final tally of Grand Rapids’ 4-2 win in Utica on Monday.
Marek Tvrdon responded for the Griffins during a power play 4:19 into the third period, taking a knuckling slap shot from above the right circle that Markstrom misplayed off his blocker, but Cory Conacher got it back and provided the final margin by finishing off a 2-on-1 break with 4:37 remaining. McCollum finished with 21 saves.
GAME NOTES: The Griffins are 1-4 all time and 1-1 under coach Jeff Blashill when trailing 2-1 in a best-of-seven series, with the victory coming two years ago in the conference finals against Oklahoma City. ... Grand Rapids set a franchise playoff record for shots in a period with 22 during the third, eclipsing the mark of 21 set twice before.
THREE STARS: 1. UTI Sven Baertschi (hat trick); 2. UTI Jacob Markstrom (W, 40 saves); 3. GRG Marek Tvrdon (power-play goal).