The Utica Comets missed an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot on Friday night when they lost to the Belleville Senators in regulation.
The Utica Comets will clinch a spot in the 2022 AHL Playoffs, the question is – when?
The opportunity was there for the taking on Friday night when they faced the Belleville Senators in Belleville, Ontario. With a magic number of two, if Utica won the game they were in. Unfortunately for the Comets and their fans, the exact opposite happened, as the Senators skated away with a 4-1 victory and in the process vaulted themselves into fourth place in the North Division.
The Senators opened the game by scoring early and often. The first goal came just over two minutes after the opening faceoff when a shot from the left sideboards of the Comets zone was redirected by Andrew Agozzino past Utica goaltender Mareks Mitens and in to give Belleville an early 1-0 lead. The Senators added another goal just twenty-one seconds later when Maxence Guenette snapped a shot front the blue line that eluded what appeared to be a screened Mitens and into the back of the net. Mitens tough start continued when he knocked down an Egor Sokolov shot but left a loose puck in his crease that Jake Lucchini was able to jam in to give the home team its third goal in less than five minutes.
Mitens’ night came to an end after the Lucchini goal as Comets coach Kevin Dineen replaced him with Akira Schmid. Despite the goaltender change, the Belleville barrage continued resulting in their fourth goal of the game when, while on the power play Jonathan Aspirot stepped in from the point, took a pass from Logan Shaw, and beat Schmid with a wrist shot to give the Senators a 4-0 lead they would take into the first intermission.
The Comets put in a much better effort in the second period but were only able to get one puck past Belleville goaltender Filip Gustavsson. That goal came at the 12:41 mark when an errant turnover behind the Senator’s net was scooped up by an opportunistic Tyler Irvine who snuck a shot past Gustavsson to get Utica within three. The Irvine goal would prove to be the last one of the game from either team, as, despite a continued push by the visitors through the rest of the game, the home team won the game and greatly helped themselves in their push to secure a playoff spot.
With Friday night’s game in the books, here are three observations from the contest:
The Comets Must Overcome the Loss of Key Players
Going into their game against the Senators, the Comets knew they would be missing Fabian Zetterlund and AJ Greer, as they would be traveling with the New Jersey Devils. They also knew they would be without Frederik Gauthier, who has missed the team’s previous two games due to injury. Friday afternoon the Devils announced they had recalled defenseman Kevin Bahl and that he too would be joining the team in Dallas.
That’s four key players that are missing from the lineup, and at least three will be gone for at least the near future. The good news is the Comets got defenseman Jeremy Groleau back on Friday night to help fill the departure of Bahl, but not having Zetterlund, Greer, and Gauthier has left gaping holes in the lineup that are going to be very tough to fill.
Even so, call-ups are a part of life in the AHL and injuries happen to every team at every level. The Comets are in no danger of missing the playoffs, but they must overcome these roster obstacles to start building momentum for the playoffs which begin in just over three weeks.
The Rest of the North Division is Heating Up.
The Comets have gone 4-4-1-1 in their last ten games and 8-7-1-1 since the beginning of March. While they are still getting points, the rest of the division (except Cleveland) has been better over their last ten games – as Laval, Syracuse, Toronto, Belleville, and Rochester have all picked up more points over this span than the Comets. Although It is unlikely the Rocket will catch Utica for the North Division title, it still shows that at this juncture the rest of the playoff contenders in the division have more momentum than the Comets.
Keep in mind, that Utica will get a first-round bye and will probably play the winner of the fourth and fifth seed preliminary matchup. This means they will play a team that already has some built-in momentum so they will want to be playing at an optimum level when the playoffs start. The good news is the Comets will have Zetterlund, Greer, Gauthier, Bahl, and Nico Daws all back by the start of the playoffs.
Despite the loss to Belleville, Laval defeated Rochester in overtime on Friday night, so the magic number for the Comets to clinch a playoff spot is down to one. To clinch the North Division crown, their magic number is now eight. The team that is in second place is the Laval Rocket, who is also their opponent on Saturday afternoon. Utica can take a big step forward in determining their playoff seeding with a win against Laval.