While the Comets are away in Michigan taking on the Griffins in the Western Conference Finals of the AHL playoffs, here’s a little rock music video for Alex Friesen. WON’T YOU STEP INTO THE FRIE-SER…STEP INTO THE…STEP INTO THE…STEP INTO THE FRIE-SER…
You know, the Seattle Seahaws play “Wilson” every tme Russell Wilson takes the field…maybe we can get the Comets and the Aud to play Frie-prise when Alex scores.
I get *Bonus* points for Frie-prise:)
By Jay Flemma, Special to Facewash Magazine
This was big: the Vancouver Sun got a few minutes with Jim Benning, GM of the Canucks, as he talked about the Utica Comets, their fans, and the magical playoff run the team is making for the Calder Cup. Benning was in Utica for a game 7 shutout that has already taken on a magical glow not only in Utica, but in AHL playoff annals as only the 2nd Game 7 shut-out all time.
The last was in 1953.
Moreover, while the team “tries to bring an NHL playoff experience” as owner Robert Esche put it, the fans have responded better than anyone ever expected. The result is the hockey feel-good story of the year.
Let’s take a closer look at what Benning had to say and offer some analysis. (You can read the entire interview here.)
Question: What have you seen in Utica?
Answer: I’m pleased. We have a good combination of older, experienced players that are high-character players that work really hard. They’ve helped mentor our young kids. And for the most part, all of our young players have really improved over the course of the year. That was an invaluable learning experience last night for the young guys playing in Game 7. And our young guys have been the centrepiece of our winning. Two nights ago, (winger) Sven Baertschi had the puck on a string all night and had eight shots. Last night, Jacob Markstrom was outstanding.
Facewash Magazine React: Winning that crucial Game 7 in “instant classic” fashion may have been the by-product of that equally phenomenal winner-take-all against Chicago. On both nights, the fans were all you could ask them to be, a true NHL atmosphere. Travis Green agreed.
He’s right about Baertschi. Of the three critical pieces acquired late, he’s been the most outstanding on the scoresheet, but plucky, feisty Cory Conacher and gritty, hard-nosed Adam Clendening and his two-way talent have made clutch contributions too. Opposing players must hate Conacher more than Westeros hates Tyrion Lannister.
Puck on a string: you can say that about Cal O’Reilly too. Watching him do the stick-handling drills in practice is like watching a master magician doing sleight of hand. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Q And Jake Virtanen, your first-round draft pick last June, made his pro hockey debut at age 18.
A Jake played the last two games. He’s going to bring us speed and physicality (in the NHL). He was getting in on the forecheck and being physical. And when you watch him in practice, the thing you really notice about him is he can shoot the puck. He’s got a fast release and it’s a hard shot.
FACEWASH TRANSLATION: We’re not going to experiment with any new players…except this totally sick, freakshow-good prospect who skates as fast as laser light show, hits like a freight train, and is utterly relentless in his attack. Talk about thrown to the lions! “Welcome, kid. You’re playing Games 6 and 7 in the loudest barn in the league!” Kid came through in the clutch. He’s been clutch every shift.
Q What other prospects catch your eye?
A Hunter Shinkaruk had a good game last night. Over the year, he has gotten physically stronger. And Alex Grenier, over the course of the year, has improved quite a lot. He’s a big kid and can handle the puck. Brendan Gaunce has gotten better.
Q What about 2011 first-rounder Nicklas Jensen, who was a healthy scratch earlier in the playoffs?
A He’s in danger of falling in between (roles). He’s not the natural goal-scorer to play in the top six, and he has to round out his game better to play in the bottom six. The details in his game have to improve. To help us win, he’s going to have to be a Jannik Hansen-type player.
FACEWASH SAYS: Re: Shinky, Grenny, and Gaunce, that’s what we’ve come to expect. The blend of skill, speed, and relentlessness is the hallmark of Comets Hockey.
Re: Jensen, who scored 35 seconds into the game – I’m checking back with you now, Jim. How did that turn out?
Seriously, though. JENSEN DID WHAT COMETS DO: RESPOND!!!
They score a goal? RESPOND!
They win a game? RESPOND!
They push the Comets to the brink? RESPOND! RESPOND! RESPOND!
It’s a mantra, I tell ya. They ought to sell THAT on a white shirt in the merch store.
Q In two seasons under Green, the Comets are 82-51-18. Are you going to be able to hang on to your coach?
A Mike Babcock’s contract ($50 million from the Toronto Maple Leafs) changes the landscape. It’s going to make the cost of coaches go up so, as with players, you’re going to have to develop good, young coaches. Travis is going to be an NHL head coach one day. But there are a lot of experienced coaches changing teams (this spring).
Q You told us recently that your management team will make a decision before the draft whether to re-sign or trade backup goalie Eddie Lack. Markstrom’s NHL record is unimpressive. What makes you think he can play for the Canucks if you trade Lack?
A That’s part of why I’m down here now — to get a good look at Jacob Markstrom and see where he fits in. That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now. He showed me a lot last night, playing a real good game (35-save shutout) in a high-pressure situation.
FACEWASH ANALYSIS: Those are two huge off-season questions. Both Travis and Markstrom have earned their places already on the Greater all of Fame. The question is one either or both are gone, how do you maintain the momentum the franchise has now? We at Facewash think the answer is to keep the system as intact as possible, the obvious exception being that they Comets anemic power play need improvement.
Comets fans may consider themselves lucky they have Markstrom at all – he was called up to the parent club mid-season, and fans and pundits thought they’d seen the last of him in Utica. Other fans started a rumor that Marky was trade bait and that he was leaving town imminently. Shows you have to be careful where you go drinking, because with that as your news source, you’ll never want for moonshine.
The Comets host the Grand Rapids Griffins tonight for Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, before the series shifts to Michigan for Games 3-5 Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
Glass Slipper Still Fits, Comets Win Game 7
By Jay Flemma, Special to Facewash Magazine
UTICA, NY – The without-a-net high-wire act that is the 2014-15 Utica Comets will continue into the AHL Western Conference Finals as Jacob Markstrom stopped all 35 shots he faced, and Alexander Grenier scored on a rebound at 7:11 of the third period, powering the Comets to a 1-0 Game 7 win over the Oklahoma City Barons. Top seeded Utica hosts Games 1 and 2 of the series Sunday and Monday against the second seeded Grand Rapids Griffins who eliminated the Rockford IceHogs earlier this week in five games.
“Well we’ve had everything else around here this year, we might as well have a Game 7,” quipped Comets All-star defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti after Game 6 ended and the Barons evened the series, and he’s right. Every further step they take in the AHL playoffs, it’s new territory, wading bravely uncharted waters for the region’s formerly long suffering fan base:
First playoff game (and win) in 22 years,
First home playoff game (and win) in 22 years,
First series-deciding game in 45 years, (Game 5 Chicago),
First deciding game victory in 45 years, (same game)
First ever Game 7 in Utica hockey history, (Game 7…the greatest two words in sports), and
First Game 7 victory.
I’ll pause for a second, so you can soak in the enormity of it…Utica wins Game 7…for real, you;re not reading “The Onion…”
Night after night, the Comets are rewriting the history of Utica sports. Each night pundits find themselves asking, “Is this the greatest sports night in this town in five decades?” Most of them respond “Yes.” Not bad for a second year franchise that opened its existence by losing its first dozen games.
Meanwhile the “Team of 4000” has been raising the bar into the stratosphere when it comes to enthusiasm, creativity, and community support. Every single fan dressed in white for the “Whiteout” as they call it in this blizzard-blasted region, where winters last five months or more, each and every one of the fans shrieking like the Banshee of Tralee. It gets so loud at times, you can’t hear Tom Coyne announce the goals.
“It felt like it was an NHL building tonight,” coach Travis Green said gratefully. You could see the admiration for it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. (If there’s one thing Travis Green is, it’s sincere.)
Add to that hosting a wildly successful All-star Game that became the Gold Standard for all the confabs to follow, and it’s been a dream come true for Utica. They’re the darlings of the AHL, the once-forgotten little burg that raised the bar, and woke up the rest of the league like a thunderclap with their wild success. You think the Comets are taking advantage of the opportunity while they have it? Well so are the fans. And with the electricity and synergy the crowd and team generate night after night, this season has already acquired a magical glow.
“This is what you play for, it’s what you dream about,” said defensemen Kent Huskins, a veteran of several NHL and AHL Game 7s.
“We’ve done this before. Game 5 [against Chicago] was like a Game 7, win or go home. You have to stay calm, but you also have to leave it all out there on the ice….Fortunately we’ve worked hard all year, and we don’t want this to end.”
Leave it all out on the ice they did, they did. After a shaky first five minutes – the same problem they had in Game 6 – the Comets settled down and did what they always do: secure face-offs, win puck battles, use their speed to generate transition chances, and cycle the puck around for good shots in the offensive zone. As usual, they out-shot the Barons and controlled the puck for an advantage in time of possession. And most importantly, the defense put the clamps down on the Barons forwards, while Markstrom picked the most opportune moment of his career for his first AHL playoff shutout, as well as the first Game 7 shutout in the AHL playoffs since 1953. (Johnny Bower of the Cleveland Barons, for those of you scoring at home – the last and only other time it’s happened in league history.)
“We felt the pressure coming into the third and we knew we wanted to get the first goal, but were still confident,” explained Grenier. “We were just trying to get people in front so if there were ever rebounds we could get one in.”
That’s exactly what they’ve done all year – swarm into the zone, set up a shot, then bang away relentlessly: if you see rubber, hit it! And that’s just how Grenier scored. Travis Ehrhardt fired a shot from the point and Bachman, as equally brilliant as Marky all series long, gave up a long rebound in front.
The video is something to see, I tell ya: the airborne puck spinning like a hippie chick at a Phish show…Grenny’s eyes widening to the size of pie plates as the puck bounces once, then suddenly lays down flat like an obedient dog…waiting for him to roof a wrister over Bachman’s glove side.
“I put my body through the other guy, and I saw a little opening over his glove and I just flew it there,” Grenny recalled. “Then I went down, and the next thing I see is Shinky on top of me.”
After that, it was left to Markstrom to save the day, twice stopping point blank wide-open shots, one with just 48 seconds left. Matthew Hunt snaked through the defense and got even closer than Grenier did to Bachman on the game’s lone goal, only this time the puck caught the edge of Marky’s glove and spiraled harmlessly high and wide.
Then the whole arena exhaled.
“You saw the opening…you saw it was Hunt…you had enough time to be horrified because he was so close, and the puck was teed up perfectly,” recalls hockey commentator Rodney Zilla. “But as it sails past it just nicks Marky’s glove. And by that whisker-slim margin was the series decided.”
Hockey isn’t a game of inches, it’s a game of microns.
Travis Green is right, of course, that you don’t win 1-0 hockey games without your whole team showing up, and top to bottom everyone from newcomer Jake Virtanen to the most grizzled vet brought it for 60 minutes, but Markstrom had the reflexes of a sleight-of-hand trickster. For goodness sake, he actually snatched back a puck that had already whizzed past his ear, leaving Barons players snarling as they skated back to the bench. Grenier’s shot won the game, but the game’s defining moments were the acrobatic prestidigitation of Marky.
“If it wasn’t for him, it might have been different with all the chances they had,” Grenier observed candidly. “He’s the best goalie in the AHL right now, and if we didn’t have him, maybe we’d be somewhere else right now.”
You could say the same thing about Richard Bachman too, though. You can’t tell the story of the series without shining a light on his command performances as well. If not or hm, the Comets could have won the series in a mere five games. Indeed, coming into Game 7, all the talk was about the goalie with the same name as Stephen King’s alter ego, (and the creepy “Come and play with us” kids on his goalie mask). Markstrom had a 1.76 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage in the series, allowing two goals or fewer in six of the seven games, but Bachman, stopped 39 of 40 shots in Game 7, and finished with a 1.75 GAA and a .948 save percentage for the seven games. Bachman came within one play of stealing the series for Oklahoma City. He was so stellar, the entire crowd stood and applauded him as he was awarded third star.
That was Utica fans showing grace and class. Well played, Comets fans. Just one thing – we know it’s tough to lose a Game 7 and see your season end, but with an ovation like the one the visiting fans gave him, they would have applauded Bachman even more loudly had he come out for a curtain call and waved to them, even for just a second. It’s understandable that he didn’t – perhaps he merely wanted to leave the stage to the victorious Comets – but it would have been gallant of him if he had, as gallant as the Herculean effort he put forth for the series.
Meanwhile Marky was his usual team-first self in the post-game presser.
“I can’t talk enough about our defensemen and our forwards blocking shots and clearing rebounds, they dud an unreal job today….They are making my job a lot easier,” he admitted.
Then, of course, Marky became his comedic, laconic, quirky self. Some Einstein asked him something along the lines of “You just won Game 7, what are you going to do now?” playing right into Jacob’s hands…
“I’m going home right now, and I’ll have a couple Coca-colas and maybe a cinnamon bun, I like those. And after that bun is over and done, it’s Sunday’s game.”
I’d say that’s his evil twin talking – “Snarky Marky” as I call him – but Marky is his own evil twin.
Strictly as an aside, with those eyes of jellied fire, jaws slavering like a hungry velociraptor, and 6’7” bulk looming over me as I try to ask him questions, Markstrom looks at journalists as though he’s trying to figure out which piece of them to eat first.
“The job’s not done,” one player said to some cheering fans as he exited the building and headed off to bask in the city’s love for the evening. Good cheer, smiles, laughs, downright adoration: Uticans are all living this Felini-esque, La Dolce Vita lifestyle right now through the Comets. It’s gone from beyond vicarious to a palpable movement. The Comets are rock stars, and that’s great, but it’s also nice for the fans to know they are still as hungry as ever.
They’re going to need that sharp mental edge more than ever now. They have kept teams hanging around in the last two series, giving both Chicago and Oklahoma City more than a puncher’s chance in a deciding game, where anything can happen. Twice now a hot goalie almost stole a series. Now for the first time this postseason they play team of equal or possibly even superior skill and speed. On paper, Grand Rapids is the toughest match-up yet, possibly a slim favorite despite the Comets having home ice advantage. They need to learn how to put teams away for good, rather than leaving them around.
“They make me more crazy than my ex-wife ever did,” joked Comets fan Brian Casale. “But then again, it all adds to the magic,” he beamed proudly.
NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES
THREE LINES LATE IN THE THIRD, AND TRAVIS ON GAME 7 PRESSURE
Travis Green – “I shortened the bench…I thought if we could run three lines from 8 minutes [left in the 3rd] to whenever we got a commercial we could do that. We ran 4 lines the whole series, and our guys are in good shape. It was a gut call you have to make at the end of the game.”
“I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, but I want the players that want the puck on their stick. You can’t play scared you’ve got to play with confidence.”
In the playoffs this year, both Markstrom and the Comets are 5-0 after a loss. They also have not lost a lead going into the 3rd period all season.
ONE TEQUILA, TWO TEQUILA, THREE TEQUILA, AAAAHHHHHHHH!
I was chatting up an energetic little snicky late Wednesday night, when she got a little excited with her hands and knocked all four tequila shots directly into both our faces!
“Ahh! My eyes are burning!” she screamed. “Are yours?”
“Ahhh! Yes! They are!” I shouted back, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
BEST CHEER OF THE NIGHT
Some guys in section 115: “Ice cold beer! Makes you wanna cheer! Ice cold gin! Makes you wanna win! Ice cold duck! Makes you wanna BEAT THE BARONS!”
Fans singing “Three Blind Mice” at the refs as they skated out pre-game.
FAN OF THE NIGHT
“I used to hate telling people I lived here,” said Holly from Boonville, a slinky little minx prowling the bar scene for boys while taking a long slug off her Lame-a-rita, or whatever it is people from Boonville drink these days. “I mean everyone used to call it a slum and dirty and hopeless, but now when people ask where I’m from, I’m proud to tell them. We are a city on the rise and the Comets are a huge part of that because they rekindled pride. Now I tell people, ‘I’m from Utica. Don’t talk s–t about that, because I’ll deck you.’”
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF UTICA COMETS AND THE UBER-TALENTED LINDSAY MOGLE.