Utica Comets vs Lehigh Valley Phantoms Game Preview

The Utica Comets will play their first game in two weeks.

The Utica Comets are finally back.

They haven’t played a game since December 17th, when they defeated the Cleveland Monsters by a score of 3-2 on an overtime goal by Fabian Zetterlund. Since then, the Comets had games against the Belleville Senators, Rochester Americans, and Springfield Thunderbirds postponed – bringing the total number of games they have had postponed to six. Despite having only played five games in the month of December, Utica still has a record of 18-1-2-0 with a .905 winning percentage – which is best in the American Hockey League.

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When they take the ice Friday evening at Adirondack Bank Center, the Utica Comets will be missing a few key pieces. Prior to the Cleveland game, the New Jersey Devils recalled goaltender Akira Schmid, defenseman Kevin Bahl, and forward Marian Studenic. All three are still with the Devils, either on the main roster or on the newly reinstated Taxi Squad. Forward Chase DeLeo was also recalled after the Cleveland game but has since been returned to the Comets. Alexander Holtz, the highly-touted winger known for his goal-scoring ability, may or may not be with the Comets on Friday. He had left just prior to the Comets last game on the 17th to join Team Sweden at the World Junior Championship. With Wednesday’s announcement the tournament had been canceled, it is unknown if Holtz will be back in Utica by the time this game starts.

The NHL Taxi Squads will create chaos in the AHL and ECHL

We do know there will be more regulars missing for the Comets on Friday than the ones listed above. Ben Birnell of the Utica Observer-Dispatch reported on Thursday that Utica coach Kevin Dineen said at least four of his players will not play in the game against Lehigh Valley because of Covid protocols. Of the four, Dineen listed only Ryan Schmelzer as being in that group. In response, the Comets have recalled forwards Samuel Laberge and Tyler Irvine from the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL. More information on these transactions can be found here: Utica Comets Bring in Some Reinforcements.

The Comets filled another roster void on Thursday by signing goaltender David Tomeo to a Professional Tryout (PTO) contract. Tomeo was on the Sacred Heart University roster last season but did not get into any games. With Schmid still in New Jersey and Nico Daws still injured, it appears Tomeo will be Utica’s backup goaltender until Schmid or Daws returns.

With the absence of Schmid and Daws, Marek Mitens is the undisputed starting goaltender for the Utica Comets. Since taking over in the Comets crease, Mitens has been outstanding – he has won both of the games he has played in and has a 1.49 GAA and .940 save percentage.

Utica Comets defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon scans the ice. Photo credit: Scott Kinville.

Like the Comets, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms have been a bit of an unexpected break from game action due to postponements. They last played on December 21st and had two games postponed since then. They enter Friday’s game in seventh place in the Atlantic Division with a 7-11-4-2 record for a winning percentage of .417. The Comets and Phantoms have played each other once this season, which was a 5-2 Comets victory on October 30th at the Adirondack Bank Center.

On offense, the Comets have no one in the top twenty of the AHL scoring race, but they have several players that are putting up consistent offensive numbers. They are led by defenseman Reilly Walsh, who in twenty-one games played has four goals and thirteen assists for seventeen total points. He is followed closely by Chase DeLeo (sixteen points), Fabian Zetterlund (fifteen points), and Nate Schnarr, and Graeme Clarke (fourteen points each. Zetterlund leads the team in goals scored with eight.

The Phantoms leading scorers, Gerry Mayhew and Morgan Frost, are currently with Lehigh Valley’s NHL parent club the Philadelphia Flyers, which leads Garrett Wilson as their leading scorer. Wilson has six goals and eight assists for fourteen points in twenty-three games played. He is followed by three players who have eleven points, included in that trio are former Comets Cal O’Reilly and Adam Clendening. Wilson is also currently the team’s leading goal scorer.

With goaltenders Felix Sandstrom and Kirill Ustimenko in Philadelphia, Pat Nagle and Samuel Ersson are handling the goaltending duties for the Phantoms. Ersson has a record of 0-2-1 this season with a 2.51 GAA and .906 save percentage. Nagle has posted a record of 4-0-2 to go with a 2.10 GAA and a save percentage of .913. Nagle played one game for the Comets in the 2014-15 season.

The franchise(s) history of the Utica Comets

AHL teams have played anywhere from twenty to twenty-nine games at this point (Utica has played twenty-one and Lehigh Valley has played twenty-four), so overall team stat standings are somewhat skewed. Still, the Comets are fourteenth in the AHL in goals scored with seventy-five and the Phantoms are in twenty-seventh with sixty. Defensively the Comets forty goals allowed are by far the least given up in the league, while the Phantoms are twentieth with seventy-six goals allowed.

The games played differential also somewhat skews the overall special teams numbers. Nevertheless, the Comets are thirteenth in the AHL on the power play at 20% (12 goals on 60 opportunities). The Phantoms are thirtieth in the league at 11.8% (11 goals on 93 opportunities). On the penalty kill, Utica is fourth in the American Hockey League with an 85.9% success rate (10 goals allowed on 71 times shorthanded). Lehigh Valley is fourteenth in the AHL having killed 81.9% of their opponent’s power plays (15 goals allowed on 83 times shorthanded).

The game starts at 5:00 pm EST. Radio coverage begins at 4:30 with the pregame show on 94.9 K-Rock (WKLL), and the television broadcast starts at 5:00 on AHLTV.

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