Utica Comets at Cleveland Monsters series preview

UPDATE: Thursday night’s game is now officially postponed.

The Utica Comets are in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday and Friday nights for a two game series against the Monsters.

Last Friday night, the Utica Comets defeated the Cleveland Monsters by a score of 3-1 in the friendly confines of Adirondack Bank Center. Now the scene shifts 582 miles west to the shores of Lake Erie for the two-game set between the AHL North Division rivals. Utica leads the division and the league with a 17-1-2-0 mark, while Cleveland is currently in third place in the division with a 10-8-2-3 record.

The Comets won last Friday night’s game behind a strong goaltending performance from Marek Mitens. Mitens was recalled by Utica from the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder after they lost both of their goaltenders in a span of forty-eight hours. Nico Daws was forced from last Wednesday night’s game against the Rochester Americans after a collision in his crease caused a lower-body injury that Comets Coach Kevin Dineen confirmed will require a week-to-week recovery timeline. Then, on the morning of the Cleveland game, Akira Schmid was recalled to the New Jersey Devils in the wake of Jonathan Bernier’s potentially season-ending injury pressing Mitens into service in Utica.

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The original plan was for the Utica Comets to sign an ECHL goaltender to a PTO (professional tryout) to back up Mitens for the time being. It now appears that plan has been scrapped as the New Jersey Devils announced on Wednesday afternoon they had traded for former Comets goaltender Jon Gillies – more on the trade can be found here: The New Jersey Devils acquire former Utica Comets goaltender. With Gillies now in the fold, it appears Schmid will be returning to Utica. It makes sense to have Schmid go to Utica instead of Gillies as Schmid is still waiver exempt and he will get more playing time in the AHL than the NHL.

Nate Schnarr of the Utica Comets is about to bat the puck into the Cleveland Monsters net during their game on Friday night. Photo credit: Kristy Kinville.

Despite the temporary turbulence in goal, the Comets still have the best record in the AHL. The Comets sparkling record is a result of getting contributions from everyone throughout the lineup. the perfect example of this is their offense, where they rank eighth in the American Hockey League despite not having any individual players in the top twenty of the AHL scoring race. The Comets offense is led by center Chase DeLeo and defenseman Reilly Walsh, who each have fifteen points. They are followed closely by Nate Schnarr and Graeme Clarke (fourteen points each), and Fabian Zetterlund and AJ Greer with thirteen points each. See what I mean about getting contributions from everyone?

Much like they did in goal, the Comets will have to deal with a loss on offense – although this one is not due to injury. Co-team leader in goals scored Alexander Holtz (he has six like Fabian Zetterlund, Nate Schnarr, and Joe Gambardella) has left the team to join Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships. He won’t return until potentially January 6th, but the good news is that Joe Gambardella will return for this series after missing the last four games with an injury. Marian Studenic, who has been a key part of the team, is also currently with the New Jersey Devils after being recently recalled.

An open letter to the hockey fans of the Mohawk Valley

The Monsters are no slouches on offense themselves, as they rank eleventh in the AHL in goals scored with seventy, and like the Comets, they don’t have anyone among the top twenty AHL scorers either. Defenseman Jake Christiansen’s eighteen points lead the team, but he has been recalled to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Closely trailing him are Brendan Gaunce and Liam Foudy with sixteen points each. Gaunce is a former Comet, and Foudy spoiled Mitens shutout bid last Friday night with just 1:34 left in the game.

The offense is good for the Utica Comets, but the defense is even better. Here they rank number one in the AHL with only thirty-eight goals allowed. The goaltending of Daws, Schmid, and recently Mitens, has been a huge part of this – as Daws and Schmid are statistically the best goaltending tandem in the AHL. Which Schmid most likely returning to the Comets, and Mitens showing he can certainly play in the American Hockey League, Utica’s strong goaltending play should continue.

Helping the goaltending is the Utica Comets under-rated defense corps. Reilly Walsh provides offensive spark from the backend, while Robbie Russo, Tyler Wotherspoon, Nikita Okhotiuk, Jeremy Groleau, and the recently reassigned Colton White have all provided a solid defensive presence. Tyler Wotherspoon, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk are all in the top twenty in plus/minus in the AHL. Bahl was recently recalled to New Jersey, but Michael Vukojevic has been recalled by Utica to replace the towering defenseman. In the games he has played for the Comets this season, Vukojevic has shown he too can be a solid contributor for the club.

The Utica Comets have a wealth of NHL experience

Unlike Utica, the defense has been an area of concern for the Cleveland Monsters this season. Only seven teams have allowed more than the seventy-three goals the Monsters have let in. Getting goaltender Danill Tarasov back from the Blue Jackets should help, as his record is 5-3-2 to go with his 3.07 GAA and .894 save percentage. Tarasov’s GAA and save percentage do not reflect how good he has been at times this season. His goaltending partner, J.F. Berube, is a long-time veteran of the AHL (Comets fans will remember him from the 2015 Calder Cup Final). Berube currently has a 4-4-3 record as well as a 2.82 GAA and .912 save percentage.

Neither team has a standout power play with Utica ranking sixteenth in the AHL at 19.3% and Cleveland is twenty-third with a 17% success rate. On the road, the Comets are 14.81% on the power play, and the Monsters are 11.9% at home. The Comets still have the fewest amount of power-play opportunities in the league with only fifty-seven.

Both the Comets and the Monsters are in the top half of the AHL on the penalty kill. Overall, Utica is at 85.1% which is the sixth-best in the league, while they are at 79.41% on the road. Cleveland is sixteenth in the AHL with an overall percentage of 81.1. At home, they kill 82.9 % of the penalties they take.

Both games in Cleveland start at 7 pm EST. Radio coverage begins with the pregame show at 6:30 on 94.9 K-Rock (WKLL), and the television broadcast begins at 7 pm on AHLTV.

Episode #55 features the host of The Devils State of Mind Podcast Neil Villapiano! Neil gives his honest, but often humorous thoughts on the New Jersey Devils struggles this season, the Jon Gillies trade, the Utica Comets, Alexander Holtz, which Comets have impressed him the most, and more! Marty’s Illegal Stick Hockey Podcast and The Devils State of Mind Podcast are available on all major podcast platforms.

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