Utica Comets begin AHL Calder Cup Finals this weekend

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Utica Comets Lineup

It’s early June and the weather is beautiful in Vancouver but there is meaningful hockey still being played within the Canucks organization. The Utica Comets have been playing great and have advanced to the AHL Calder Cup Finals on Saturday.

That means it’s time for Canucks fans to jump on the Comets bandwagon!

Utica has been on a magical playoff run defeating the Chicago Wolves (St. Louis Blues affiliate), the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers affiliate) and Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings affiliate).

Just like the second round, the Comets saved their best game for the last game of the series. Jacob Markstrom made 21 saves while Cory Conacher and Alexandre Grenier scored as the Comets eliminated the Griffins in six games with a 2-0 win.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HHi3UtwCco&feature=youtu.be

However they will now face their toughest opponent, the Manchester Monarchs (LA Kings affiliate) in the Calder Cup Finals.

Opponent: Manchester Monarchs

Image: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

The Monarchs swept the Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers affiliate) in the Eastern Conference Finals and haven’t played a game since May 27th. The Monarchs have three of the top four scorers in the playoffs with Jordan Weal, Brian O’Neill and Michael Mersch leading their offensive attack. The Comets have a distinct advantage in net as the Monarchs goaltending has been their weak spot in their playoff run. With Jean-Francois Berube boasting a 2.38 GAA and 0.894 save percentage compared to Markstrom’s numbers of 1.87 GAA and 0.931 save percentage.

Manchester was first in the AHL for puck possession during the regular season, while Utica finished second.

Who’s Hot?

1. Adam Clendening

Image: uticacomets.com

Image: uticacomets.com

Adam Clendening was acquired by the Canucks in January and saw 17 NHL games before being assigned to Utica. Since then, Clendening hasn’t been the dominant offensive defenceman that was his trademark for Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks affiliate).

But under the tutelage of Utica head coach Travis Green, Clendening has rounded out his defensive game. This will help him to make the transition to the NHL full-time next year, as he becomes subject to waivers.

The good news is he seems to have the right attitude about the trade and his development:

“It was nice to be sought after and traded for, I got to play a lot of time up there right away and that was nice being put into some pretty important roles on some pretty big stages during the playoff push,” he said. “For the organization and the coaches to have the confidence in me to do that is pretty nice.”

Hopefully he can continue to build on his success from this year and make an impact for the Canucks next year.

2. Jake Virtanen

Image: uticacomets.com

Image: uticacomets.com

Although Jake Virtanen has only put up one point in the AHL, his presence has been noticed. He has been using his speed and physicality to create space for himself and his linemates. One concern was that Virtanen’s game may not translate to the pro game as the players will be bigger and stronger. But as you’ll see below, those concerns may be forgotten quickly:

Virtanen has played so well that he has moved his way onto the second line to play with Sven Baertschi. Hopefully Virtanen can continue to use his speed and strength to get Baertschi some more offensive chances.

If he continues to do that, he will quickly become beloved in Vancouver.

3. Jacob Markstrom

Image: uticacomets.com

Image: uticacomets.com

During our Conference Finals Preview, I mentioned that Jacob Markstrom was one of Utica’s best players. Well, he hasn’t slowed down yet.

Once again, Markstrom was dominant throughout the majority of the series, only giving up 11 goals in 6 games. Just like the last round, he had one rough game where he allowed 4 goals in 2 periods. However, the 6’6” netminder quickly rebounded and finished off the Grand Rapids Griffins with a shutout in Game 6. His performance in the Conference Finals was highlighted by this save in Game 5.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgblLPNFFiI

 

Who’s Not?

1. Nicklas Jensen

Image: uticacomets.com

Image: uticacomets.com

Unfortunately it appears that 2011 1st round pick Nicklas Jensen is trending downwards. After being a healthy scratch in the last game of the first round, he played in 6 of the 7 second round series games and then the first 4 games of the Conference Finals. But was a healthy scratch in the last two and doesn’t look like he will get back into the lineup anytime soon.

Jensen looked great for a few games in the NHL last year, but then tailed off and has never been the same since. With the Canucks looking to acquire more draft picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, I have a feeling that Jensen may be one of the players shipped out this summer.

2. Cory Conacher

Image: uticacomets.com

Image: uticacomets.com

Unfortunately for Cory Conacher, he will always be linked to Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop. Traded for each other at the trade deadline in 2013, Bishop is playing in the Stanley Cup Final while Conacher has 5 points in 18 AHL playoff games.

The Canucks acquired Conacher at this year’s trade deadline to give the Comets more offensive punch. It appeared to work, as he had 16 points in 20 AHL regular season games. But the playoffs have been a different story, with the exception of his game winner in Game 6 against Grand Rapids, Conacher hasn’t been noticeable. He has been playing better with 3 goals in the last 4 games. This may be the last chance for him to prove he deserves another shot in the NHL.

Lineup

At the moment Darren Archibald, Andrey Pedan, and Carter Bancks are injured. Pedan may be available at some point during this series. Jared McCann and Ben Hutton have been sent home for the season to prepare for next year. Nicklas Jensen and Joseph Labate have been the recent healthy scratches and I would expect that to continue.

The lineup below is from Game 6 of the series against Grand Rapids but will likely change as the series goes on, as head coach Travis Green likes to juggle his lines.

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

It is great to see that the Comets are having success in only their second year of existence. Even if the Comets can’t capture the title, the experience for players like Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce and Jake Virtanen will be unmeasurable.

Game 1 goes Saturday at 3:00pm PT.

You can watch every game of the Calder Cup for free with promo code: CALDERCUP here on AHL Live.

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Ryan Biech Hockey writer for Vancity Buzz
@ryanbiech

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