A natural hat-trick a bounce back 40-save performance from Jacob Markstrom got the job done, as the Utica Comets defeated the Grand Rapids Griffins 4-1 Thursday night at the Van Andel Arena. The win has now given the Comets a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Sven Baertschi (3-0-3) scored his second hat trick of the year after recording his first earlier this year on February 10th with his prior team, the Adirondack Flames. Cory Conacher (1-0-1) also netted a goal for his second of the postseason. Jacob Markstrom recorded his first assist as a Utica Comet on top of stopping 40 of the 41 shots he faced.
“I liked Sven’s play tonight,” said Comets Head Coach Travis Green. “He was around the puck and carried the puck all night. When he carries the puck I know he’s playing well.”
After a scoreless first period, Sven Baertschi opened up the scoring with his first goal of the night just past the three-minute mark in the second stanza. Will Acton made an excellent heads up play in his first game back since March 21st, with a pass to Baertschi who met the puck at the blue line. Baertschi just had enough room to squeeze in past the defender and snapped off a shot that ripped past the left leg pad of Tom McCollum to give the Comets their first of the night. Wacey Hamilton recorded the secondary assist.
Baertschi’s next goal resulted from a goaltender interference penalty called on Xavier Ouellet for tripping up Markstrom behind his net. At 9:17 the Comets scored their third power-play goal of the series after Cal O’Reilly slid the puck across the center slot to Baertschi who ripped home the one-timer to make it a 2-0 game. Bobby Sanguinetti also made his way on to the scorer’s sheet for his seventh assist of the postseason.
Just over two minutes later, Baertschi’s natural hat-trick and Jake Virtanen’s first professional point became a reality after Virtanen shot the puck into McCollum’s chest and Baertschi backhanded the rebound for the 3-0 lead. Alex Friesen was also credited with an assist on the play.
Baertschi’s hat-trick was the first allowed in the playoffs by Grand Rapids in eight years and the first allowed at home in 13 years. His hat trick was the third time the feat has been achieved in Comets franchise history and the first in the playoffs.
It wasn’t until the Griffins third power-play attempt of the night when they finally solved Markstrom just past the four-minute mark into the third period. Jeff Hoggan set up a similar play to the Comets second goal after dishing a pass to the high center slot to Marek Tvrdon who then slapped it towards Markstrom and through the pads to make it a 3-1 game.
The Comets added one last goal to the scoreboard with less than five minutes left in the game as Cory Conacher raced in on the left wing and drove the puck into the net before running into the right goal post and causing a disturbance in the crease. Peter Andersson recorded the primary assist while Markstrom recorded the secondary point for his first assist in a Comets sweater.
With a win in Game 3 and the series lead, the Comets have now reclaimed home-ice advantage if necessary. Before heading back to The Utica Memorial Auditorium, the Comets have two games remaining in Grand Rapids with Game 4 slated for Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Van Andel Arena.