Photo credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets
15 games into the season, the Comets finally won consecutive contests. In fact, following Wednesday’s win over Syracuse (which isn’t covered in this article), they’re actually up to three wins in a row. Not bad!
The Comets had some decent offensive performances last week, scoring nine goals over three games, with multiple young players riding goal and point streaks through the end of the week. Could the Comets be poised for a turnaround? Let’s dig in to the week that was.
Wednesday, November 16th vs. Hershey: 4 – 2 Loss
Richard Bachman started this game opposite his former goalie tandem partner Joe Cannata, who signed with the Washington Capitals organization in the summer.
The Bears struck twice in the first period, first Liam O’Brien scoring on a broken play in front of the net before Chris Bourque blew a slapper past Bachman on a 5-on-3 Hershey power play.
The Comets and Bears traded goals the rest of the way. Curtis Valk scored his fifth goal of the year midway through the second, receiving a pass from Darren Archibald in the slot and taking about a quarter of a second to put it over Joe Cannata’s shoulder. Hersey’s Nathan Walker restored the two-goal lead about five minutes later.
In the third period, it was Darren Archibald’s turn again, blasting a one-timer past Cannata off a drop pass from David Shields. Later in the third, Nathan Walker potted his second of the game to restore the two-goal lead once again, and that’s the way the score stayed.
Friday, November 18th vs. Springfield: 5 – 4 Overtime Win
A 5-4 overtime win probably isn’t Travis Green’s ideal path to success, but this was the season’s most entertaining game to date in my opinion. Not only did it involve a lot of scoring, but the Comets made a late game comeback, down 3-0 early in the second period, and down 4-3 late in the third period, that culminated in Curtis Valk tying the game on a penalty shot.
The Comets fell behind, as Springfield got goals from Sena Acolatse and Mackenzie Weegar in the first period. Dryden Hunt, a highly touted CHL free agent pickup by their parent club, the Florida Panthers, made it 3-0 early in the second. Then the Comets turned it on.
They got second period goals from Alex Grenier (his fifth of the season) and Cole Cassels (his first). Early in the third period, the Comets capitalized on a power play, with Joe LaBate tying the game up at three goals apiece. Springfield’s Josh Brown scored to regain the Thunerbirds’ lead a few minutes later, paving the way for Curtis Valk’s heroic penalty shot late in the third to tie the game.
A little over a minute into 3-on-3 overtime, Darren Archibald scored his fifth goal of the season, giving the Comets a well-deserved and entertaining victory.
Saturday, November 18th vs. Rochester: 2 – 1 Win
Curtis Valk stayed red hot by opening the scoring in Saturday’s game, taking a feed from Jake Virtanen in front and sliding it under the Rochester netminder. It was his fourth straight game with a goal.
Nick Baptiste tied this one up halfway through the second, sneaking behind the defence and beating Bachman low glove side on a power play breakaway.
Just a few minutes later, with the Amerks on another power play, Cassels broke up a play near the blueline. He played give-and-go with Joe LaBate, streaking in past the defender and deking Linus Ulmark, sliding a backhander through the five-hole for a shorthanded marker – Cassels’ second goal in as many games.
This was a pretty low event game overall – the Comets managed to limit the Americans to single digit shots in each period, including in the third when they were nursing a lead. Following an injury to Richard Bachman, Thatcher Demko came in in relief and counted down the final minutes as the Comets won their second straight game for their first winning streak of the season.
The Comets signed centre Luke Pither to a PTO. He played in Wednesday’s game and was released at the end of the week.
The other major moves occurred after the week was over. The Comets signed Pascal Pelletier to a Professional Try-Out. Pelletier played for the Comets in their inaugural 2013-14 season and holds the current record for most goals in a season, with 22. Capable of playing both forward and the wing, the left-shooting Pelletier is a welcome sight for a team that has struggled to score for most of its existence, and one that is especially week on the left side.
The other roster move was the recall of Joe LaBate to the big club. LaBate was called up on Monday after posting six points (two goals, four assists) in 12 games to start the year, and made his NHL debut against the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday.
Everyone is injured. More or less.
Sautner, Negrin, Zalewski, McPherson, Pedan not on the ice for warmups. They all have injuries. Laplante out with illness.
— O-D Comets (@OD_Comets) November 23, 2016
- Ashton Sautner has a concussion and has been skating in a non-contact jersey.
- Andrey Pedan (lower body) and Mike Zalewski (upper body) are both considered day-to-day.
- Richard Bachman is “out”, and in classic Travis Green form, we got little to no information on it.
Travis Green had no real update on Richard Bachman. Just said he’s out.
Wouldn’t comment on a possible timeline for return.
— Ben Birnell (@OD_Birnell) November 24, 2016
† Missed game(s) due to injury/illness; * Missed game(s) due to NHL call up.
- Curtis Valk had a heckuva week, putting up five points in three games, including scoring a goal in each, en route to what is now a five-game point streak. Valk is still on an AHL contract, which must be remedied.
- Joe LaBate scored a goal and added two assists, all coming in the final two games of last week. He’d been getting time on the first power play unit (which is where he scored his goal), and had formed a stable line with Cole Cassels and Michael Carcone. He was called up to the Canucks, making his NHL debut on Wednesday.
- Alex Grenier‘s scoring pace has slowed down a little since Michael Chaput was recalled, but he hasn’t gone cold yet. He scored a goal and added an assist during last week’s game. He scores a lot of his goals ranging between “the Ovi-spot” and the back door of the net on the power play.
- Cole Cassels had not one, but two goals last week! This is excellent news, because it took Cassels 22 games to score his first goal last season, and another 18 games to get his second goal, so having two goals in his first eight games (recall that he missed seven games already with injury) is cause for celebration. Cassels looks good out there, cycles well and forechecks hard, but he needs to shoot the puck more.
Jordan Subban had one point in three games last week. He’s slowed down considerably since getting off to a red hot start. He’s been taken off of the first power play (replaced by Colby Robak) and is now one of two defencemen on the second unit.
I have a theory here: Travis Green prefers a four forward set for his top power play unit, which usually runs a fairly fluid 1-3-1. Subban, while being wizardous at getting his blistering shot through to the net, struggles mightily on break outs when forecheckers pressure him (which they always do now), and struggles to handle short handed odd man rushes in the event that the puck is bobbled at the blue line. Having him on the second unit with a second defenceman (Chad Billins) relieves him of the pressure of running the breakout, as well as defensive help if the play turns the other way. It’s cut down on short handed chances against, but it’s also giving Subban less offensive opportunities. Of course, they’re starting to win games now, so that might be a tradeoff they can live with.
- Jake Virtanen played in two games (Friday and Saturday), and registered a single point – his first ever regular season AHL point – in the form of an assist on a Curtis Valk goal. He had a strong game on Saturday, but Virtanen seems to be having difficulty putting consecutive good games together.
- Michael Carcone buzzes around the ice and gets pucks into good offensive positions. He doesn’t have much production to show for his effort yet, but I’d tab him as a player poised for a breakout at some point in the near future.
- Injuries to Andrey Pedan and John Negrin, as well as the Stecher call up, have allowed Evan McEneny to remain in the lineup more often than not. The 22-year old played mostly in the ECHL last year and was fairly productive. He’s still looking for his first AHL point.
- I can’t believe they gave Yan-Pavel Laplante a contract instead of Alexis D’Aoust.
As for the season leaders to date (prior to Wednesday’s game at least), Grenier has passed Chaput by virtue of primary points. Valk was tied with Subban, but he had an assist retroactively removed from Friday’s game (instead given to Colby Robak). He still leads the team in goals and trails only Grenier in primary points.
Neither goalie’s numbers looks good last week (which has been a common theme thus far this season), but Thatcher Demko managed to escape with his second win of the season.
As mentioned above, Bachman was injured and is out for an unknown period of time, which means that the Comets will be rolling with a tandem of 20-year old Demko and 25-year old Michael Garteig, giving them one of the league’s youngest goalie duos.
The Comets were handily outshot in the first two games last week, by a tally of 31-21 both times. On Saturday they turned it around and outshot Rochester 27-20, but were still outshot 82-69 over the course of the week.
Utica continues to make life difficult on itself by taking more penalties than their opponents. This is particularly troublesome considering that both their penalty kill and power play are struggling. They score once in 11 man advantage opportunities last week (9.1%), and kill off 12 of 15 shorthanded instances (80%). They continue to be near the bottom of the league in penalty killing, and slightly above average on the power play.
Player of the Week
It’s Curtis Valk again.
I know I’m riding the Valk train pretty hard, but he seriously deserves this esteemed honour once again. I’ve been a big booster of his ever since the Canucks brought him out to the 2014 Penticton Young Stars tournament and I see no reason to slow down now. All the guy has done is show that he can produce at each level. He can shoot, he sees the ice well, he backchecks and forechecks hard, and for a small guy, he rarely gets dumped on his rear.
And just look at the hands he displays on this penalty shot:
Valk has a long journey ahead of him if he wants to crack an NHL roster, but putting up a ton of points is a great step – and impressive your coach with multiple aspects of your game is another.
Green on Curtis Valk’s play – “He does a lot of things good – he’s a smart player, his hockey sense is real high, and he’s brave”.
— Don Laible (@CometsTales) November 24, 2016
I keep saying this, but it bears repeating: I don’t expect Valk to be the next Tyler Johnson or Johnny Gaudreau, or some NHL all-star. For me, just getting to the NHL would make his story incredibly impressive.
When you’re playing on an American League deal, the NHL can seem awfully far away. But sometimes it can come at you in a big hurry if everything goes right – just ask Mike Zalewski.
The Comets played Syracuse already on Wednesday, beating them 2-1 for their third straight victory. That game completed a six-game homestand. On Friday they’ll make the short trip Rochester for a rematch against the Americans. And on Saturday, they’ll head into Canada to take on the ever-dangerous Toronto Marlies, who are once again near the top of the league standings.