UTICA, N.Y. – Cory Conacher’s goal early in the second period was all the Utica Comets needed in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday, as they claimed a berth in the Calder Cup championship series with a 2-0 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins at the Utica Memorial Auditorium.
The Comets will now face the AHL’s regular-season champions, the Manchester Monarchs, for the right to hoist the Calder Cup, with Game 1 in New Hampshire set for Saturday.
The Griffins’ third-ever foray into the month of June ended largely due to the goaltending of Jacob Markstrom, who made 21 saves to backstop a Utica defense that limited Grand Rapids’ opportunities while blocking shots time and again.
Not surprisingly, a tightly contested first period saw little in the way of scoring chances for either team, despite a pair of power plays per side and the Comets’ 9-6 edge in shots. Tom McCollum was very good when called upon, though, sticking out his left pad to make a stop with just over six minutes remaining, then denying both a redirection and a try at the right post in the final minute of the frame.
Conacher put the Comets on the board 3:16 into the second, scoring from the top of the right circle on a shot that knuckled past McCollum’s glove into the near corner of the net. A few minutes later, the netminder stood strong after a giveaway in the Griffins’ end led to a flurry of three saves in short order, keeping the visitors within a goal.
A subsequent Griffins' power play expired without a shot, leaving the Griffins with just seven at the halfway point of the contest, although Markstrom’s leisurely night was a result of the active and frequent shot-blocking by his teammates. Another Grand Rapids advantage in the final minutes of the period generated a pair of shots from close range, but still the Griffins went to the locker room with that 1-0 deficit on the scoreboard and just 10 shots to Utica’s 22.
McCollum, who had been 4-0 this postseason in games following a loss, continued to stop everything else that came his way, finishing with 27 saves before departing for an extra attacker with two minutes remaining. The Griffins spent 30 seconds simply trying to escape their own zone against an outnumbered but ferocious Utica forecheck, and Alexandre Grenier scored into an empty net with 1:14 remaining for the final margin.
Grand Rapids had been 3-0 this postseason and 5-1 all time under coach Jeff Blashill when facing playoff elimination.
GAME NOTES: Each of Grand Rapids’ captains – Jeff Hoggan and alternates Brennan Evans and Nathan Paetsch – appeared in his 50th playoff game as a Griffin, a milestone previously reached only by Travis Richards (59). The trio did it in only three postseasons, while Richards’ accumulated his games over seven playoff runs, hitting the half-century mark in his sixth Cup chase.
THREE STARS: 1. UTI Jacob Markstrom (W, SO, 21 saves); 2. UTI Cory Conacher (goal); 3. UTI Alexandre Grenier (goal).