The Utica Comets got the win they needed and are now the North Division Regular Season champions.
For the Utica Comets and their fans, the long wait is finally over. After stumbling through most of the month of April thereby delaying the inevitable clinching of the North Division crown, the Comets put it all together in the third period against the Cleveland Monsters to bring the title home. Utica now has a home-ice advantage through the North Division segment of the AHL Playoffs.
They are also in the driver’s seat to clinch home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, as only the Providence Bruins and Springfield Thunderbirds can now finish with a higher points percentage than the lowest possible points percentage the Comets can now finish with, which is 0.6319. The Comets travel to Providence on the last day of the regular season (April 30th) to face the Bruins.
For Wednesday night’s game, the Comets welcomed back AJ Greer as he was assigned back to the team earlier in the day by the New Jersey Devils. They also welcomed back Tyler Irvine, Patrick Grasso, and Tim Theocharidis from the Adirondack Thunder, as well as a newcomer from the Thunder in the form of defenseman Jarrod Gourley. Utica would need them, as Tyce Thompson (injury), Tyler Wotherspoon (personal – congrats on the new baby Tyler!), Nikita Okhotiuk (callup to New Jersey), and Sam Laberge would all miss the game.
The game began in a very defensive state of mind, as neither team registered a single shot on goal until over five minutes after the opening faceoff. Like they did on Tuesday night, the Comets got the first goal of the game in the first period when Joe Gambardella sent a centering pass from the right corner of the Cleveland zone to the front of the net that redirected off of Aarne Talvitie’s skate and past Monsters goaltender Cam Johnson (making his second consecutive start) and into the net. Since there was no distinct kicking motion, the goal stood and the Comets took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
The Monsters made a big pushback in the second period. Cleveland’s leading scorer defenseman Jake Christiansen tied the game with just over nine minutes remaining in the period when he skated the puck across the Comets zone and wired a wrist shot from the left circle past a completely screened Akira Schmid – who like his counterpart Johnson was making his second start in as many days. The Monsters took the lead with just under five minutes remaining when while on the power play, Cole Clayton fired a wrist shot from the point past a completely screened Schmid to give Cleveland a 2-1 lead they would for the rest of the period.
The Utica Comets came out in the third period with an “enough is enough” attitude, and took complete control of the game. They tied the game at just 1:06 into the period when Jarrod Gourley got his first AHL goal in his first AHL game when he unleashed a howitzer from the top of the left circle and into the Monsters net. Just over a minute after the Gourley goal, Utica took the lead when current team-leading scorer Chase DeLeo snapped his own rebound off a shot from the right circle past Johnson to light the lamp.
The Comet’s fourth goal of the game and third of the period came at the 13:34 mark when Alexander Holtz scored a “highlight reel” type of goal when he darted to the front of the Cleveland net and shot the puck from between his legs past Johnson for his team-leading twenty-fifth goal of the season. Cleveland got a goal from Thomas Schemitsch with four and a half minutes remaining to make it interesting, but Schmid and the Utica defense slammed the door the rest of the way to preserve their 4-3 victory. This was the eighth and final time these teams will play each other this season, with the Comets winning five of those games.
Utica’s next game is against the Rochester Americans at the Adirondack Bank Center on Friday night. Before we move on to that game, let’s take a look at the three observations from Wednesday night’s victory over the Monsters.
The band is getting back together.
As previously stated, AJ Greer was reassigned to the Utica Comets on Wednesday morning and he made his presence felt on Wednesday night. He didn’t register a point, but he had two shots on goal and more importantly was a physical presence all night. He wreaked havoc in front of the Cleveland net and had a fight as well. Greer’s physical presence was sorely missed by the Comets and it showed in this game.
Greer wasn’t the only one assigned to the Comets by the Devils on Wednesday. They also announced goaltender Nico Daws is coming back to Utica as well. The tandem of Schmid and Daws that carried Utica to it’s incredible, record-breaking start to the season is finally back together – just in time for the playoffs. Speaking of the playoffs, the Comets will also have Fabian Zetterlund, Kevin Bahl, and Nikita Okhotiuk back by then.
Aarne Talvitie is quietly having a great season.
He doesn’t get the headlines his more high-profile teammates do, but Aarne Talvitie has been a big part of the Comets success this season. In his second professional season after playing eighteen games in Binghamton last season, the twenty-three year old center has quietly put together a very solid season. He has twelve goals and eleven assists in sixty-five games played so far (including a three-point night on Wednesday), but he has been the defensive stalwart center every successful team needs. He is a +14 on the season so far, has two shorthanded goals and two game-winning goals. He has just as many game-winning goals so far this season as AJ Greer, Nolan Foote, Chase DeLeo, and Brian Flynn.
The power-play has suffered a power outage.
The Comets started the month of April out red hot on the power-play, when they scored five goals in eleven opportunities in their first three games of the month. Since then, the unit has gone cold, scoring only one goal in twenty-three power-play chances over their past six games. The lack of efficiency on the power-play certainly contributed to the rough patch the team has endured over the past few weeks.
Overall, Utica has the fifth-best power-play in the American Hockey League, so this should be just a bump in the road. Getting AJ Greer back and eventually Zetterlund as well will be a huge boost to the unit that should help turn things around. Reilly Walsh and Alexander Holtz are emerging from the slumps they recently suffered as well, so the Comets power-play should be back to normal by the time the playoffs start.