When Jake Virtanen arrived in Utica after his WHL playoff run with the Calgary Hitmen came to an end, he was expecting to come in and practice with the Vancouver Canucks‘ top minor league affiliate, the Utica Comets, to learn about the game at the professional level.
Instead, injuries to forwards Darren Archibald and Carter Bancks opened up a spot in the lineup right away for Virtanen, who made his pro debut in Game Six of the AHL’s Western Conference semifinals against the Oklahoma City Barons before appearing in his first-ever Game Seven in pro hockey two nights later.
“Coming here, I just thought I’d be here for experience,” Virtanen said after Utica’s Game Seven win over Oklahoma City. “Coming in and then with some injuries we have, Travis told me that I would be going in and there’s nothing better.”
Virtanen created offensive opportunities with linemates Mike Zalewski and fellow rookie Hunter Shinkaruk on a regular basis while also being a physical force, playing a gritty two-way game at a high level.
“They have a lot of skill on that line,” Virtanen said of his linemates. “I’m probably the heaviest guy on that line so I’m going to create room for those guys to get in on net or anything like that just to make space for them. If I have the time with the puck, I’ll try to get shots on net, too. It’s a good line combination.”
Virtanen was held off the scoresheet against the Barons but was still very noticeable on the ice, particularly in Game Seven at the Utica Memorial Auditorium.
“Coming from junior, I think I’ve been in two game sevens in playoffs, but this is completely different – it doesn’t compare,” Virtanen said.
Virtanen’s breakout season in 2013-14 saw him selected sixth overall by the Canucks at the 2014 NHL Draft. Coming off a 45-goal WHL season, Virtanen followed it up with 52 points (21G-31A) in 50 regular season games this season – also adding 13 points (5G-8A) in 14 WHL postseason contests before joining Utica at a critical time.
“My last game was my first game of pro and [this was] just an unbelievable experience for me,” Virtanen said after the Comets’ 1-0 Game Seven win over Oklahoma City, adding, “It was a Game 7, only my second game of pro and [we] come away with a huge win.”
In Game Three of the Western Conference Finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins, Virtanen added the primary assist on Sven Baertschi’s hat trick goal in the second period for his first professional point. Virtanen got open at the top of the right wing faceoff circle and, although his shot was stopped by Griffins’ netminder Tom McCollum, Baertschi swooped in for an uncontested rebound goal.
Although the Comets eventually fell to the Manchester Monarchs in the 2015 Calder Cup Finals, Virtanen and several other Canucks prospects played in a highly competitive atmosphere, gaining valuable experience that bodes well for the future of the organization.
“Being in this atmosphere [was] unbelievable,” Virtanen remarked about Utica’s postseason run. “Just going out there and getting the experience will help me in the future, so that’s really good.”
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