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Comets strike first, take Game 1

by Randy Cleves / Detroit Red Wings
Griffins center Kevin Porter battles with Utica forward Nicklas Jensen during the first period of Sunday's Western Conference finals opener. (Photo by Lindsay A. Mogle/Utica Comets)

UTICA, N.Y. – The Utica Comets rode two early goals to a 2-1 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Sunday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

Following a week-long layoff after dispatching Rockford in the conference semifinals, the Griffins will get right back at it on Monday when the Comets host Game 2 at 7 p.m. EDT. The series will then shift to Van Andel Arena for the first of as many as three straight games, beginning with Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Friday.

Comets winger Nicklas Jensen – no relation to Griffins defenseman Nick Jensen – gave the home squad the lead just 35 seconds into the contest, tucking a sharp-angle shot into the near corner of Tom McCollum’s cage from the right goal line. Brandon DeFazio made it a 2-0 game when his wrist shot from the left circle snuck past McCollum at 11:06.

The Griffins answered with 3:57 left in the period, only four seconds into a power play, as Mark Zengerle sliced across the goal mouth to deflect Nathan Paetsch’s feed behind Jacob Markstrom. McCollum then ensured that the deficit would remain one goal at intermission by denying DeFazio’s wide-open one-timer with just 1.4 ticks showing on the clock.

Those goals were all that either netminder allowed on the night, as Markstrom turned aside 15 shots over the final two periods to finish with 25 saves, while McCollum countered with 21 over the final 40 minutes en route to a game total of 29.

As the Griffins pressed for the tying tally in the waning minutes, a boarding call on Louis-Marc Aubry with 2:56 remaining took the majority of the wind from Grand Rapids’ comeback sails.

GAME NOTES: Dylan Larkin, the Red Wings’ first-round pick and the 15th overall selection in last summer's NHL draft, made his pro debut on the heels of his freshman season at the University of Michigan. He logged two shots on the night. … The Griffins have dropped their road opener in all three playoff series this year. … This marks just the second time in six best-of-seven series under coach Jeff Blashill that Grand Rapids dropped Game 1. The Griffins fell in their 2014 conference semifinal opener to Texas and went on to lose to the eventual Calder Cup champs in six games. … All time, Grand Rapids owns a series record of 3-8 when losing Game 1 of a best-of-seven.

THREE STARS: 1. UTI Jacob Markstrom (W, 25 saves); 2. UTI Brandon DeFazio (game-winning goal); 3. UTI Nicklas Jensen (goal).

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