The Utica Comets completed their regular season series with the Syracuse Crunch with a 5-1 victory to inch closer to the North Division title.
The Utica Comets had been experiencing something unusual during the month of April – a losing streak. Entering their game on Friday night, the team was in the midst of their first four-game losing streak of the season, although they did clinch a spot in the 2022 AHL Playoffs during that time. Even though their playoff spot is secure, the Comets badly needed a win
Their opponent on Friday night, the Syracuse Crunch, was also in need of a win. The Crunch are in third place in a very tight North Division where second and sixth place are separated by a mere 0.05 points percentage. With four remaining playoff spots up for grabs, Syracuse needs to keep winning or risk falling out of a playoff spot with just over two weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Crunch came out of the gates looking like a team determined to pick up a victory, as they poured seven shots in on Utica goaltender Akira Schmid in the first five minutes of the game. Schmid did not yield any goals, however, and it was the Comets who struck first at the 8:09 mark. Nikita Okhotiuk fired a wrist shot from the left point of the Syracuse zone that got by Crunch goaltender Hugo Alnefelt to give the Comets a 1-0 lead they would take into the first intermission.
The disdain the two teams have for each other boiled over in a chippy second period, as a total of nine penalties were called. As far as the scoring goes, the Comets took a 2-0 lead at the five-minute mark when Alexander Holtz sent a pass from the goal line on the right side of the Syracuse zone to Reilly Walsh, who charged into the slot and snapped a shot past Alenefelt.
The physicality ramped up with under five minutes left in the second when Nikita Okhotiuk connected with a clean open-ice hit on Gabriel Dumont to which his teammate Cole Koepke took exception. He started a fight with the Utica defenseman for which he took an instigator penalty that put the Comets on the power play. It would work in the favor of the Crunch though, as while killing the penalty Darren Raddysh sprung Anthony Richard on a breakaway that he would score on to cut the Utica lead in half heading into the second intermission.
Utica got a shorthanded goal of their own in the third period when on the tail end of a Graeme Clarke slashing penalty, Tyler Wotherspoon beat Alnefelt with a sharp angle shot from the left side of the Syracuse zone to restore the Comet’s two-goal lead. With less than three minutes remaining, Brian Flynn sent a shot from his own zone all the way into an open Syracuse net, followed by a goal by Brian Halonen to seal the victory for the Comets. Tyler Wotherspoon earned the first of the game with his one goal and two assists performance.
This was the fourteenth and final regular-season meeting between the two teams and the Comets dominated the series – winning eleven of the matchups. With the win, the Comet’s magic number to win the North Division is now five, while Syracuse’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is eleven. With both teams moving on to their next games, here are the three observations from Friday night.
Some Rest Did the Comets Good.
Prior to Friday night’s game against Syracuse, the Comets had not played a game since the previous Saturday at Laval. Prior to the Laval game, Utica had played eight games, including five games in one week. Couple this with losing four key players during that time (Zetterlund, Greer, Bahl, and Gauthier), and the Comets really needed a chance to reset and “recharge the batteries” so to speak.
It was just what the doctor ordered. Although the Crunch dominated the first five minutes of the game, the Comets rebounded and got stronger as the game went on. The third period really stood out for Utica as, despite a spirited effort by the Crunch, the defense was airtight and Schmid stymied the Crunch comeback attempt. It was reminiscent of what Comet fans had grown used to seeing through the first half of the season.
Reilly Walsh is Back.
After enduring a stretch of sixteen games where he recorded only two points over fifteen games, defenseman Reilly Walsh appears to have found his mojo again. With his goal against the Crunch, he now has three points over his past four games. The Comets will need Walsh to be firing on all cylinders for the playoffs, as he is a key factor in their transition game that drives the offense. It is clear that over the past four games he is regaining his swagger and that will pay huge dividends for the Comets going forward.
Playoff Like Atmosphere on Friday Night.
The tension between the Comets and the Crunch was obvious right from the opening faceoff on Friday night. That’s bound to happen when teams play each other for the fourteenth time in one season of course, but throw in the playoff implications, and you have the makings of a very tense game. Even though the score was lopsided, the game displayed all the intensity that comes with playoff hockey. If this was a preview of what to expect, then come May the Calder Cup Playoffs are going to be a lot of fun!