by Mark Caswell, Jr.May 23, 2015
With the Utica Comets and the Grand Rapids Griffins reaching the Western Conference’s Finals round, six of the conference’s seven series went “chalk”. As the top seed in the West, the Comets hope that trend continues as they take on the second-seeded Griffins. The task at hand is not an easy one, the top-scoring team in the American Hockey League roll into town on Sunday for Game 1.
The Comets 103 regular season points just edged out the Griffins’ 100 points for the Western Conference regular season title. The top two teams in the conference will square off in the Conference Finals for the first time since 2012. In 2012 both conferences saw the top seeds match-up with the underdog Toronto Marlies defeating the Barons 4-1 in the West, and the favorite Norfolk Admirals sweeping St. John’s 4-0 in the East.
33% of the AHL’s All-Star rosters will highlight this series with each team possessing two All-Stars. Teemu Pulkkinen and Andy Meile bear first team honors while Bobby Sanguinetti and Jacob Markstrom were named to the Second Team.
The Comets and Griffins have played each other twice all-time with both games coming this season. Led by Dustin Jeffrey’s two goals, the Comets emerged with a 4-2 win at The AUD back on January 14th. Just over a week later on January 23rd the Griffins returned the favor and defeated the Comets 5-1 at Van Andel Arena. That victory ignited the Griffins, over the next 24 games they would lose only a single game in regulation, including a league-best and franchise-record 19-game point streak.
It looks like it’ll be a relatively easy series for the AHL’s esteemed referees, as both teams recorded less than 1,000 penalty minutes all season. Grand Rapids (869) is just one of three teams to spend less time in the sin bin than Utica (978). The special team units are practically mirror images of each other. Grand Rapids ranked 15th on the power play with a 17% conversion rate, while the Comets finished 18th with a 16.1% rate. With a man down, the Comets 86.3% success rate ranked 7th in the AHL, one slot behind the Griffins, who killed 86.4% of their penalties.
The top-seeded Comets have gone the distance in both series they have played. The first round saw the Comets dispatch of the pesky Chicago Wolves in five games. The second round came down to Game 7, where a heroic 1-0 shutout from Jacob Markstrom, and a rebound goal in the third period from Alexandre Grenier was all the Comets needed.
The Griffins stumbled out of the blocks and lost their first two-games of the post-season to the seventh-seeded Toronto Marlies. Staring an early elimination in the face, the Griffins responded with three straight victories on home ice to move on to the second round. In the second round the Griffins needed just five games to take down their Midwest Division rival, the Rockford IceHogs.
The Comets will need their well-balanced offensive attack that featured 13 players (12 forwards, 1 defenseman) who scored double-digit goals this season, which led the American Hockey League, to show up this round.
The Comets fired 2,425 (31.91 per game) shots on goal during the regular season, good for seventh most in the league. The Comets have kept firing away and pace all playoff teams with an average of 38.83 shots per game. The team possesses a +108 shot differential, which also leads all playoff teams.
Alexandre Grenier and Alex Friesen exploded onto the scene in the second round. Grenier scored two game-winning goals in the best-of-seven series, including the OT winner in Game 2. His seven points (4-3-7) against the Barons led all Comets players. Alex Friesen netted five points (3-2-5), including a point in four straight games (Games 3 through 6), to finish second on the team. Both players paced the Comets with a +4 rating.
The offensive numbers coming from Grand Rapids jump off the page. This season they rode a high-powered offense and the scoring touch of the league-leader in goals, Teemu Pulkkinen (34), to a 100-point season in the west. The high-stakes of playoff hockey have not slowed down Pulkkinen, who has scored 13 goals in just 10 games, and is halfway Bill McDougall’s all-time AHL record for goals in a single playoff. However, the Griffins scary offensive show isn’t all about Pulkkinen. Andy Miele finished second in the AHL with 70 points, while Tomas Nosek and Nick Jensen paced the AHL in plus/minus with a +30 rating.
Nothing has changed for Grand Rapids in the playoffs as they have actually improved on their league best 3.28 goals-per game-pace from the regular season, to 3.70 in the playoffs.
With nine points (6-3-9) in eight games Tyler Bertuzzi is one of three players (Pulkkinen and Miele) who have a better than a point-per-game pace for the Griffins this postseason. He has come up in big spots too, with four of his six goals being of the game-winning variety.
The Comets defensive unit is the stingiest one left in the AHL playoffs and have allowed just 26 goals despite playing the most amount of games (12). The Comets 2.17 goals-per-game-allowed pace is third best-amongst all teams that qualified for the playoffs, and is even better than their 2.38 regular season pace, which was fifth best in the league.
It is a very offensively talented unit that has scored 21.4% of the team’s goals during the playoffs as well as almost 20% of the team’s goals in the regular season. However, the offensive production has not come at the expense of their main duties, as the Comets gave up just 28.51 shots per game, which was the 7th fewest allowed in the league through the course of the regular season.
Through the course of the regular season the Griffins defense has been just as stingy as the Comets, and allowed just three more goals against for an average of 2.43 per game. The playoffs have seen that number spike to 3.10 allowed, which is the most allowed of the final four teams, by a healthy margin (Manchester 2.45).
The high goals allowed per game is a bit shocking as the Griffins have allowed just 30.40 shots on net per game, which is the fourth fewest amongst playoff teams.
Grand Rapids have iced seven defenseman in the playoffs, not a single goal has been scored amongst them.
The AHL’s second-best goaltender in the regular season, in terms of goals against average (1.88) and save percentage (.934) resides in Utica, NY. That man, Jacob Markstrom, has been the horse the Comets have ridden through the course of the playoffs thus far, and the impressive thing is that he has improved on his stellar regular season numbers. His goals-against-average in the playoffs is a sizzling 1.85 which is the best amongst remaining goaltenders.
In games following losses he is a perfect 5-0, with a sensational 0.95 goals against average, and a .964 save percentage. Included in there is a 1-0 Game 7 shutout, the second in the AHL’s history, and first since Johnny Bower did it in the 1953 Finals.
The man between the pipes for the Griffins is a man the Comets have not yet faced. Tom McCollum has played in all but one of the Griffins 10 playoff games. He ranks 13th out of all the playoff goaltenders with a 2.68 goals against average. His .913 playoff save percentage ranks as second worst amongst goaltenders that have appeared in at least six playoff games.
The regular season saw more of the same for McCollum, where he posted a 2.40 goals against average, and a .916 save percentage.
- Dismantle the Pulk-annon. The Comets will win this series if they can limit the Griffins lethal offensive attack. The Comets have all the tools defensively, and in net, to give the Griffins offense their best test of the year. If they can limit their scoring, the offense should be able to provide enough to take the series.
- Ol’ Reliable. The Comets have enjoyed scoring from everywhere, including some unlikely places this postseason. They’ll need more goals this series to advance. If some of the Comets historically high-scoring players can find their scoring touch again the odds of success will skyrocket.
- Welcome Back. The Comets special teams, most notably the power play, were kept in check during the Oklahoma City series. With these two teams so evenly matched, the difference could very well come down to the special teams. With each team taking a very limited amount of penalties, capitalizing on those few chances, and scoring power-play goals will be vital to advance to the Calder Cup Finals.
- The 5th Line: Comets fans are making a name for themselves, most notably recently appearing on MSG during the Rangers post-game show. The boys on the ice will need everything you got this series to help advance. The Comets asked that fans #WHITEoutTheAUD for all playoff games. The whiteout serves as a rallying cry, and shows support to the players wearing white on the ice. Add the whiteout intimidation factor in with the ear-splitting noise the Comets faithful brings to the game, and you have a decided edge in favor of the home team. The atmosphere created by the “5th Line” is a unique element, and Utica fans will once again need to make their presence known throughout the playoffs just like they have all season.