Utica Comets Begin AHL Conference Final Tonight

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Image: Lindsay A. Mogle

The Canucks season has been over for almost a month but Vancouver’s AHL affiliate Utica Comets are in the Conference Final. The series begins tonight and with Canucks management having preached the importance of having their prospects in a winning environment, the success of the Utica Comets this year could pay huge dividends for the future of the Canucks.

The Comets beat the Chicago Wolves (St. Louis Blues affiliate) 3-2 in the best-of-5 first round series. Jacob Markstrom played sensational throughout the entire series and recent first round pick Brendan Gaunce, who was a healthy scratch for the two prior games, scored two goals in the series deciding Game 5.

Source: canucks.nhl.com

Image: canucks.nhl.com

Round 2 had the Comets take on the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers affiliate), which the Comets won in seven games. Markstrom was again dominant by holding the Barons to 14 goals in the 7 games, which included a forgettable Game 4 where he allowed 6 of those goals. Alexandre Grenier (2011 3rd round pick) became the hero of the series, scoring the OT winner in Game 2 and then the lone goal in Game 7, as Utica held on for a 1-0 win in the final game.

Canucks prospect Jake Virtanen was inserted into the lineup for Game 6 and 7 of the second round. He has been noticeable with his physical play and speed.

Opponent: Grand Rapid Griffins

source: www.ahl.com

Image: ahl.com

Utica will have their hands full in the Conference Final as they face the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings affiliate). Just like the Comets, the Griffins needed the full five games of the opening round to defeat the Toronto Marles (Toronto Maple Leafs affiliate). They were able to dispatch the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks affiliate) in five games in the 2nd round.

Grand Rapids’ offence is led by Teemu Pulkkinen and 2013 2nd round pick Tyler Bertuzzi. They should get a big boost with 2014 1st round pick Dylan Larkin joining them, after he turned pro on Thursday.

Grand Rapids won the Calder Cup in 2012-13.

Who’s Hot?

source: www.uticacomets.com

Image: uticacomets.com

1. Alexandre Grenier

I like to refer to Alexandre Grenier as the forgotten Canucks prospect. As a 20-year-old, Grenier was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft by GM Mike Gillis. He has been slowly developing into a serviceable top-6 forward for the Comets. He possesses the size and shot to make it in the NHL, but has always struggled in the defensive zone. But Grenier has earned coach Travis Green’s trust:

As mentioned, Grenier has scored two game winning goals last series and will look to build on that in the third round. I believe he should be challenging for a NHL roster spot next season.

2. Sven Baertschi

I mentioned a few days ago in the Prospect Report that Baertschi has been nothing but sensational for Utica since the Canucks acquired him. He is the game breaker the Comets needed and Canucks fans hope he can bring that to Vancouver next year.

The amazing part is that Baertschi has had countless more chances than the 8 points he’s put up in the playoffs. If he can capitalize on a few of those chances in the next round, then Utica could overcome the Griffins and punch their ticket to the AHL Calder Cup Final.

3. Jacob Markstrom

As much as Baertschi has been leading the offensive attack, Jacob Markstrom has been shutting the door. Markstrom has been one of the best goalies in the AHL all year long and hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs.

Given the Canucks’ goaltending situation next year, I doubt Markstrom will play for them again. But if he continues to play well, hopefully he can increase his trade value enough to acquire something of value for GM Jim Benning.

Who’s Not?

Source: www.uticacomets.com (Comets Photo by Lindsay A. Mogle)

Image:uticacomets.com

1. Nicklas Jensen

The 2011 1st round pick has struggled all year in Utica. He has been unable to put together stretches of good play and has quickly fallen down the prospect depth chart. He has just 2 points (1-1-2) in the 10 playoff games he has been in the lineup.

Judging by the this quote from Jim Benning, Jensen may have fallen out of favour with the organization as well.

2. Hunter Shinkaruk

I am only including Hunter Shinkaruk because he finished the season on a tear and then crashed back down to earth. He had 12 points in the last 13 games of the regular season and then followed that up with 3 points in the first 2 games of the playoffs.

Since then, Shinkaruk has just 1 point in 10 games.

His dominance was when he was promoted to the first line, but during his cold streak he has been shuttled back down to the 3rd and 4th lines. One good sign for Shinkaruk is that he has been playing with Jake Virtanen the last few games and they have been noticeable. Hopefully that continues and they can put up some points.

Lineup

The Utica Comets follow the Vancouver Canucks model of rolling 4 lines and getting everyone involved. Former first round picks are spread throughout the lineup and surrounded by AHL veterans.

The lineup below is from game 7 of the series against Oklahoma but will likely change as the series goes on, as coach Travis Green has adjusted his lines quite a bit throughout the previous two series.

At the moment Frankie Corrado, Darren Archibald, Andrey Pedan, Will Acton and Carter Bancks are injured. Corrado, Pedan and Acton could return at some point during the series. Jared McCann and Jospeh Labate have been healthy scratches as they get to see professional hockey for the first time.

Grenier O’Reilly Baertschi
Gaunce Defazio Hamilton
Conacher Friesen Jensen
Virtanen Zalewski Shinkaruk
Sanguinetti Andersson
Biega Ehrhardt
Clendening Huskins
Markstrom

Hopefully the Comets will be able to put it all together and beat the Griffins. Even if the Comets do lose this series, the experience gained will go a long way.

Quite a few of the current Tampa Bay Lightning were members of 2011-12 Calder Cup Champion Norfolk Admirals. With a few of the players on the Comets challenging for roster spots in Vancouver next year, a Calder Cup championship could go a long way in their development.

Game 1 goes at 4:00pm PT.

You can listen to all Utica Comets games on 94.9 KRock radio here.

Or watch each game (for $10 USD a game) here on AHL Live.

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Ryan Biech Hockey writer for Vancity Buzz
@ryanbiech

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