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Comets build early lead, beat Griffins

by Randy Cleves / Detroit Red Wings
Defenseman Xavier Ouellet helps center Dylan Larkin celebrate his power-play goal Sunday night at Van Andel Arena. (Photo by Mark Newman/Grand Rapids Griffins)

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.

GAME 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 quarterfinals 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 semifinals 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. … Sunday’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 Jacob Markstrom (W, 32 saves); 2. UTI Brendan Gaunce (two assists); 3. GRG Dylan Larkin (power-play goal).

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