The Utica Comets suffered their fourth loss in their last five games on Wednesday night. Is it time to get worried?
The Utica Comets (35-14-6-1, 77 points, 0.688 points percentage) have had things go their way for pretty much the entirety of the 2021-22 season. That is, until now, as the team is in the throes of a three-game losing streak and has lost four of their last five games. For the month of March so far, they have a record of four wins and five losses.
The turbulence the team currently faces is a result of several factors. The roster changes that all AHL teams deal with from time to time have really hit the Comets hard as of late. Nolan Foote, Chase DeLeo, Jeremy Groleau, and Ryan Schmelzer have all missed time recently due to injury (although DeLeo did return to the lineup on Wednesday night). This week in particular has been brutal for roster upheaval, as not only are there injuries to deal with, Nate Schnarr was traded to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday as well. If that wasn’t enough, the New Jersey Devils recalled forward AJ Greer and defenseman Kevin Bahl prior to Wednesday night’s game.
Another problem the Comets have faced lately is their top scorers are suffering through slumps. This of course does not suggest the team’s woes are to blame on any particular player going through a slump that happens to every player from time to time, but it has added to the overall malaise the Comets have been experiencing. Alexander Holtz, who is already known as one of the best goal scorers in the AHL, has not scored in six games and only has two assists in that span. Defenseman Reilly Walsh, who has been such a big part of driving the Comet’s offense from the backend this season, has three points (one goal and two assists) in his last fifteen games. With the major roles these two players have on the team, it is not surprising the Comets have been having trouble generating offense lately – especially with other key contributors missing from the lineup.
For a lot of teams, a late March slide could be a major cause for concern for their playoff hopes. The Comets, however, have been in firm control of the top spot in not just the North Division, but the entire Eastern Conference as well for nearly the whole season. They haven’t officially clinched the North Division title just yet, but to lose that they would have to lose just about all of their remaining sixteen games, and the second-place Laval Rocket would have to win just about all of their games – it is highly unlikely that both will happen at the same time even with the Comets slumping.
Although the NHL trade deadline has passed, AHL teams can still make trades with players on AHL contracts until Monday, March 28th at 3:00 pm EDT. Whether or not Comets management will make any moves remains to be seen, but we do know that goaltender Nico Daws will be back in Utica by the start of the AHL playoffs at the latest, as he was made eligible by the Devils on Monday. For the time being, however, Utica will have to battle through the roster turbulence they are currently experiencing regardless of who is in the lineup.
They’ll have to figure it out in a hurry too, as the schedule now gets very tough. The Comets play Syracuse at home on Friday night for their third game of this week, then they will play five games next week. That run consists of road games on Sunday and Monday night in Providence and Hartford, another road game on Wednesday night in Rochester, back home on Friday night to play Syracuse again, and then a road game at Lehigh Valley on Saturday night. That’s a lot of hockey to be played in a short period of time.
This is the first time of adversity the Comets have faced since they lost both Akira Schmid and Nico Daws within days of each other back in early December. Back then, Mareks Mitens stepped in and held the fort down in the Utica crease until the team was able to get one of those two back on a regular basis. The Comets have been in first place for so long by so much (I’m not complaining, just pointing it out), that they have yet to feel the urgency that comes with being a team that has little room for error to get into the playoffs. The Comets will make the playoffs, but now their opponents are playing every game with the intensity that comes with fighting for their playoff spots. Just like in early December, Utica will need a “next man up” mentality to weather this current storm.
Is it time for concern for this Utica Comets team? Let’s wait until the entire team is back together and playing to their full potential before hitting the panic button. Take Holtz and Walsh for instance, they are young and too talented for their slumps to last for the rest of the season. It is, however, it is gut check time, and with the playoffs coming up soon this could actually be a great opportunity for coach Kevin Dineen’s team to get mentally prepared for the grind and all-out battle that is the AHL Playoffs.