The Utica Comets fell to the Belleville Senators on Saturday night by a score of 4-1, as their magic number to clinch the North Division remains at five.
The Utica Comets went back in time on Saturday night for a “Roaring 20’s Night” all over the Adirondack Bank Center, with Model T cars out front, many men and women adorned in the dress of the period, and 20’s era music. On the ice, the Comets wore a special edition uniform that was a salute to the city’s iconic beer brand, Utica Club – which proudly declares on its packaging that it was the first beer sold in the United States after prohibition. Coming off of a big win over Syracuse on Friday night, the home crowd was ready to continue the party.
The Comet’s opponent on this night, the Belleville Senators, was not in the mood to party. While Utica has already clinched their playoff spot and is closing in on the North Division regular-season crown, the Senators desperately need wins to stay in an extremely tight playoff race. Entering this game, Belleville was clinging to the fifth and final playoff spot in the division over the Rochester Americans – who were also playing on Saturday night and could overtake the Senators with a win and a Belleville loss.
On a side note, the uniform aesthetics for both teams had a “Roaring 20’s” type of look. The Comets uniforms were of course a nod to the era as I mentioned, but whether it is intentional or not, so was Belleville’s. The black, red, and white on their uniform kit, along with their logo are reminiscent of the first incarnation of the Ottawa Senators from the 1920s. (check out this link for a look at how all the old hockey uniforms looked https://nhluniforms.com).
The game itself had a very slow start, as only one total shot on goal was taken within the first five and half minutes. The action would pick up later in the period, however, as both teams wound up with nine shots on goal for the frame. The Comets scored the only goal of the period when Nolan Foote took a drop pass from Robbie Russo and snapped a seemingly innocent-looking shot from the Belleville blue line that eluded Senators goaltender Mads Sogaard and wound up in the net. Sogaard was reassigned to Belleville and goaltender Filip Gustavsson was recalled to Ottawa prior to this game.
The Senators tied the game at the 6:34 mark of the second period when a Viktor Lodin shot from the point deflected off a body in front of the Utica net and got by Comets goaltender Mareks Mitens. The home team responded by outshooting the visitors by a margin of seven to two, but it was the Senators that wound up taking the lead. With fifteen seconds remaining in the period, Mitens misplayed the puck behind his net resulting in a Logan Shaw goal that gave the Senators the lead and a boost heading into the second intermission.
The third period was a tight-checking affair, as a total of only ten shots on goal were generated. The only goals in the period came in the last minute, and both were scored by Belleville. Scott Sabourin scored into a vacated Utica net with forty-six seconds left to give the Senators the insurance goal they were looking for. Mark Kastelic scored another with just seven seconds remaining (this time with Mitens in the net) to seal his team’s 4-1 victory and keep Belleville’s playoff hopes alive. With the win, the Senators moved into fourth place in the North Division, while the first place Comets still have a magic number of five to clinch the division.
The Utica Comets will now travel to Cleveland for a two-game set with the last place Monsters on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. With Saturday night in the books, here are three observations from this game.
Garrett Van Wyhe Makes His Debut.
Between callups and injuries, the Comets have holes in their lineup they need to fill for the time being. To help do that, they signed undrafted college free agent Garrett Van Wyhe out of the University of Michigan. In his senior season for the Wolverines, Van Wyhe had six goals, six assists, and forty-two PIM in forty-two games. He actually dressed Friday night against Syracuse but did not get inserted into the lineup.
Coach Kevin Dineen instead chose to plug Van Wyhe into the lineup on Saturday night, as he centered the fourth line with Brian Halonen and Sam Laberge on his wings. It was an interesting choice given Halonen is a recent college free agent himself with all of six games of AHL experience going into the game, but the trio brought an element of physicality – which leads us to the second observation.
The Comets Played Another Physical Game.
Friday nights game against Syracuse was a physical, playoff type battle for the Comets. Saturday night against the Senators wasn’t quite as chippy, but it was very physical all the same. As the regular season winds down and teams have a ramped up sense of urgency to either get in or improve their playoff standing, Utica can expect more of these types of games.
The Comets still have Nikita Okhotiuk, Ryan Schmelzer, and the aforementioned trio among others to provide physicality. They will also get a boost in that department when AJ Greer, Kevin Bahl, and Fabian Zetterlund return from their recall to the New Jersey Devils, but this weekend Chase DeLeo and Alexander Holtz were also noticable for their increased physicality. Combine that with their outstanding scoring abilities and it adds a whole new element to the team going forward.
The AHL Has Some Things to Look at in the Off-Season.
Refereeing is a very difficult job at any level, let alone in a league that is one step below the NHL. The referees did not by any means cost the Comets the game on Saturday night, but the officiating for both games in Utica this weekend was certainly questionable at times. Chalk it up to a crew that perhaps did not have a lot of experience at the AHL level that should get better with time.
My biggest gripe is with the way faceoffs are handled. Yes, we know there is a crackdown on positioning and timing in the faceoff dot, but faceoffs should not be this aggravating. More often times than not, the game is being held up unecessarily for the most minor of facoff infractions – creating frustration for players, coaches, and fans alike. Of course cheating should be allowed during faceoffs, but the way the rules are set up they are being over-regulated at this point.
Bonus Observation: It’s Tough to be a Penalty Killer.
There might a shortage of icepacks in the city of Utica for the next few days. That’s because Jacob Bernard-Docker of the Senators blocked not one, not two, but three Alexander Holtz one timers during one Utica power play in the second period. It was apparent from his reactions that Bernard-Docker’s padding did not get all of those shots, so who could blame him for using as many icepacks as he can.