Utica Comets win an overtime thriller in Cleveland

Photo credit: AHLTV

Despite playing with a less than full compliment of players, the Utica Comets found a way to win on Friday night.

REO Speedwagon once sang “Roll With the Changes” and on Friday night in the home city of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, that’s exactly what the Utica Comets did.

The first change was the schedule. The Comets were supposed to play the Cleveland Monsters on Thursday night as well, but the team entered the AHL Covid protocols that day on a precautionary basis forcing the postponement of that game. By Thursday night, the team cleared the protocols, the buses were loaded for an overnight to Cleveland for the Friday night portion of what was supposed to be a back-to-back series.

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The Comets team that took the ice on Friday night was different as well. Key contributors AJ Greer and Nate Schnarr did not dress for the game, and Alexander Holtz has already left to join Team Sweden for the World Junior Championships – although they did get Joe Gambardella back who had missed the last four games due to injury. To help fill the voids, the Comets announced on Friday they had signed goaltender Bailey Brkin, forward Peter MacArthur, and defenseman Chris Lijdsman to professional tryout contracts. Lijdsman played, Brkin backed up starting goalie Marek Mitens, while MacArthur did not enter the lineup – forcing the Comets to play the game with just ten forwards.

The Utica Comets Friday night game is happening and other notes

With just those ten forwards, six defensemen, and Mitens starting in goal, the Utica Comets took the ice at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse to play the team they had just defeated by a score of 3-1 last Friday night at the Adirondack Bank Center. The first period of this game ended up scoreless due to the efforts of both goaltenders. Mitens made four huge saves, while his Cleveland counterpart, Daniil Tarasov, flat out stoned both Aarne Talvitie and Graeme Clarke with under two minutes to go in the opening frame.

With just over six minutes gone in the second period, the Comets thought they had the first goal of the game when Chase DeLeo sent a seemingly innocent-looking dump-in from just beyond the Monsters blue line that wound up in a wide-open Cleveland net after Tarasov came out of his crease to play the puck. It was waved off immediately as it was ruled it went directly into the net after bouncing off of an official, which is illegal in the AHL.

Episode #55 of Marty’s Illegal Stick Hockey Podcast features a chat about the New Jersey Devils and Utica Comets with the always interesting host of the Devils State of Mind Podcast Neil Villapiano.

Despite that disappointment, the Comets would end up getting the first goal of the game anyways with 3:38 left in the second period when captain Ryan Schmelzer tipped a Tyler Wotherspoon shot from the point into the net. Cleveland answered just thirty-three seconds later on a goal by Kevin Stenlund, and since it was Teddy Bear Toss night the ice surface was soon covered with thousands of stuffed animals. With a massive cleanup job looming, the officials decided to send the game to intermission at that point and play the remaining 3:05 of the second in conjunction with the entirety of the third period.

Home sweet home: Utica and the NJ Devils are a match made in heaven 

The third period was a tight-checking affair but certainly not without drama. Former Comet Brendan Gaunce haunted his former team by scoring with just 1:28 left, giving the Monsters a 2-1 lead. Desperate to tie the game, the Comets pulled Mitens to get an extra skater and the gamble worked. With six skaters set up in the Cleveland zone, Chase DeLeo fired a shot from the right circle that deflected off someone in front and right to Fabian Zetterlund – who buried the puck in the net to tie the game with just thirty-eight seconds left. To matters worse for Cleveland, Stenlund took a slashing penalty twenty seconds later to the Comets a power play heading into the overtime period.

It took Utica just one shot to end the game, as Reilly Walsh walked the blue line until he found a wide-open Zetterlund on the left side of Tarasov’s crease for the game-winner on the power play at exactly one minute into the period to secure a 3-2 overtime win. With the victory, the Utica Comets improve their already American Hockey League-best record to 18-1-2-0 with an astounding .905 winning percentage.

Notes: The teams were even in shots on goal with 26 each…Utica was 1 for 3 on the power play, Cleveland was 0 for 4…In his two starts in goal for the Comets this season, Marek Mitens has allowed only three goals…Fabian Zetterlund (2 goals), Tyler Wotherspoon (2 assists), and Reilly Walsh (2 assists), led all Comets scorers, Five Monsters registered one point each…Fabian Zetterlund has scored in three straight games…With his two assists in the game, Reilly Walsh took over the team lead in scoring with seventeen points…The Comets are scheduled to play again on Tuesday, December 21st in Belleville against the Senators.

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