In his first four and a half seasons of pro hockey, former Buffalo Sabres prospect Justin Bailey compiled 13 two-goal games but never scored a hat trick.
Then on Jan. 10, in his 312th appearance, the Williamsville native recorded three goals in the Utica Comets’ 5-2 win against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Following a game without a goal, the speedy Bailey exploded again early in the Comets’ 6-5 victory against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Jan. 15, scoring three times in the opening 15:15.
“It’s a little bit of a streak that doesn’t happen very often,” Bailey said of having two hat tricks in five days.
Bailey’s mother, Karen Buscaglia, who attends as many of her son’s games as she can, missed the special performances.
“She was … kind of just like, ‘Damn, I don’t get to see any of your hat tricks,’ ” Bailey said.
Then on Friday, the wintry weather nearly forced Buscaglia to cancel her outing to Utica. But instead of driving, she made the three-hour trip by train.
Bailey scored twice in the second period before his teammates set him up for an empty-net goal in the Comets’ 6-3 win over Hartford. An American Hockey League player hadn’t recorded consecutive three-goal games since former Sabres winger Mark Mancari in January 2011.
“It was a pretty cool moment for her to be there on Friday,” Bailey said.
Buscaglia said the moment was kind of “surreal.”
Having compiled 13 goals and 19 points in his last 13 games, Bailey is the AHL’s hottest scorer. He just earned player of the week honors. His 22 goals were tied for sixth in the league entering Wednesday’s games.
“All those games, it was kind of crazy, just like everything I was shooting was going in,” Bailey said.
Bailey, 24, has acclimated well to the Comets, his third AHL team in the last year, providing offense and showcasing his versatility for the Vancouver Canucks’ top affiliate.
“I’ve been playing every situation,” said Bailey, who has scored nine power-play goals and also kills penalties.
Last January, the Sabres traded Bailey to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Taylor Leier, a swap of young AHL wingers.
Bailey, a second-round pick in 2013, was one of the Sabres’ top prospects for years. He scored 20 goals in each of his first two seasons with the Rochester Americans and earned recalls to the Sabres.
But his development stalled, and with a new regime running the Sabres, his days in the organization seemed numbered. He cleared waivers last season and was a healthy scratch with the Amerks before being dealt.
Bailey played 11 games with the Flyers. Still, they did not tender him a contract offer – Bailey’s grateful the Flyers let him find a new organization instead of stashing him in the minors – making him a free agent.
“I’m happy where I am right now,” said Bailey, who signed a two-way contract with the Canucks on July 4.
Bailey, who played 52 games for the Sabres, has always found his way back to the NHL.
Two years ago, he suffered a high ankle sprain and endured a 21-game goal drought with the Amerks, yet he rebounded and received a late-season recall. Last year, following a tough stretch in Rochester, the Flyers summoned him from Lehigh Valley right away.
Right now, Bailey doesn’t want to worry about the NHL.
“I’m kind of focusing on controlling what I can control,” he said. “Do I think that one day I can find a way to stick in the NHL? One hundred percent. I think you look at guys’ careers and everyone has a different path to get where they want to be.
“Obviously, I’m grateful for everything that’s happened in my career. I’ve played a good amount of NHL games. … I definitely know what it takes to get to the NHL. I’m still trying to figure out how to stay there full time.”
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound Bailey credits his offseason training – he spent much of the summer working out in Arizona – for his strong season. He said he added a little size without losing any speed.
“I knew what I needed for my body,” he said. “I’m 24 now, I’ve been a pro now for five years.”
Bailey enjoyed a strong start this season, scoring three goals in the first four games. The Comets, meanwhile, roared out of the gate, winning their first eight contests. Entering Wednesday’s games, they ranked first in the North Division.
The Comets feature one of the AHL’s deepest lineups. Bailey is one of six players who have already recorded 30 points.
Bailey, a right-handed shot, has been skating at left wing, a position he played two years ago with the Sabres. He said he prefers playing there because he can grab pucks that rim around in the defensive zone on his forehand and zoom up the ice.
Playing in Utica, the AHL’s smallest media market, can be a special experience. The Comets routinely pack the Adirondack Bank Center, their 3,900-seat home.
“You could say the Comets are kind of the main attraction in the city,” he said. “It’s a smaller barn, it gets loud, the ceiling’s low. I remember playing against Utica, you kind of knew the first 10 minutes of the game, you were going to have to kind of weather their storm. ...
“I can only imagine what it’s like come playoff time.”