Photo Credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets
So I’ve taken a bit of a winter vacation when it comes to my duties as the Utica Comets correspondent, which makes that this issue is going to cover a three-week span in which the Comets played seven games. I’ll condense bits here and there to try and prevent a feature that’s already pretty wordy from getting too bloated.
Of interest over this period of time was the conditioning stint of Anton Rodin, who finally played his first professional regular season game in North American since 2013, after spending three seasons in his native Sweden.
Aside from that, Alex Grenier, Curtis Valk and Jordan Subban continued to put up some points, while Thatcher Demko struggled mightily and the Comets’ losing streak hit nine games.
Wednesday, December 14th vs. Albany: 3 – 2 Overtime Loss
Friday, December 16th vs. St. John’s: 3 – 0 Loss
Saturday, December 17th vs. Binghamton: 4 – 3 Overtime Loss
Wednesday, December 21st vs Providence: 3 – 1 Loss
Wednesday, December 28th vs St. John’s: 4 – 3 Overtime Loss
Friday, December 30th vs St. John’s: 2 – 1 Overtime Loss
Saturday, December 31st vs Rochester: 6 – 3 Loss
The Comets are have seen many of their injured players return to action of late (including Mike Zalewski and Richard Bachman, who were both out long term), though Derek Hulak and Tom Nilsson remain on the shelf. Yan-Pavel Laplante joins them on the injury list and won’t play this weekend.
Anton Rodin was assigned to a conditioning stint, playing three games over a two-week span before returning to the Canucks and making his NHL debut just prior to Christmas.
With the news that Erik Gudbranson would be undergoing surgery and would be out indefinitely, Andrey Pedan was called back up to the Canucks. He played zero games before being sent back down.
Follow the returns of Zalewski and Bachman, the Comets sent goaltender Michael Garteig and forward Marco Roy to the ECHL. Roy was recalled after one game in the East Coast league, after Laplante sustained an injury.
- Anton Rodin played three games in his conditioning stint, and it took him just 12 minutes in his first North American professional game since April of 2013 to notch his first point – an assist from a nice set up on an Alex Grenier goal.
Travis Green was enthusiastic about Rodin’s play when asked, stating that the former Swedish League MVP’s skill and tenacity reminded him of Sven Baertschi.
- Alex Grenier has stayed hot lately, with five points in his last seven games. He continues to pace the Comets offensively, and probably deserves a call up at this point, but it seems that ship may have sailed for him. The Canucks appear to consider Michael Chaput and Jayson Megna NHLers at this point, Reid Boucher and Anton Rodin are still waiting in line.
- Jordan Subban has also regained his scoring touch after going dry for a while. Subban is currently tenth in points among AHL defencemen, third in goals, and tied for first in power play goals. But the best news, from my viewpoint, is that he seems to have cut down on his giveaways. What used to be a fairly common occurrence, even just a month ago, seems to be few and far between at the time. He still has a bit of trouble getting beat to the outside by speedy forwards, but I’m certainly seeing progress, and I hope the Canucks are too.
Subban was recently named to the AHL all-star team, and you can read more about that here.
- Curtis Valk scored his ninth goal of the season last week, and although he’s cooled off considerably since that white-hot run in mid-November, he is still leading the Comets in goals. I still think they should give him a damn NHL contract.
- Cole Cassels scored again a couple of weeks ago, and every time he does I find it amusing because I can say things like this: Cassels has now doubled his goal output from last season!
To be honest, four goals in 24 games is still a pretty woeful pace, and he doesn’t have any assists to go along with them. Cassels is still a far cry from the player we saw in 2014-15 – even if you tempered expectations after that excellent season, you still would have expected better than this in his second professional year. The good news is that he’s found a niche for himself as a pretty important penalty killer for the Comets.
- Joe LaBate had a pair of assists over this seven game stretch. It’s not bad for a guy returning from injury, but we’d hope for more.
- After scoring four goals in five games, Virtanen has just one point in his last seven. He’s still getting some chances (with 17 shots over this seven game period), but the conversion hasn’t been there of late. It’s another sobering reminder that he’s still got a ways to go. The four goals he’s amassed to this point doesn’t indicate that he’s figured the AHL out entirely.
Ever since returning from that NHL call up, Demko has been struggling something fierce. In his final game before Christmas, he was yanked in favour of Michael Garteig after allowing three goals on eight shots. After a hot streak leading to his call up in which he allowed two goals or fewer for seven consecutive starts, he has allowed three or more goals in each of his last six starts, with an .841 save percentage in that time. His last win came on December 7th, just short of a month ago.
Michael Garteig got the start in the second game of the weekend back-to-back, his third AHL start. The Comets spotted him a three goal lead, but they couldn’t hold on to it. After allowing two goals in the final minute and a half of the second period, the Comets eventually fell in overtime, with Garteig being tagged for four goals in total. His save percentage is still markedly better than Richard Bachman’s however.
These past few weeks have been a clear demonstration of what happens if the Comets’ goaltending isn’t near perfection. Utica doesn’t score enough goals to support even average goaltending, and allowing more than two goals in a game seems to be enough to kill the Comets on most nights.
Garteig, the goaltender who was just sent back to Alaska, currently has the best save percentage on the team, after Demko’s has steadily sunk and Bachman’s remains in the basement even after an impressive game in his return from injury.
The Comets’ power play hasn’t really been a strength of their offence, but it isn’t necessarily dragging them down either. Over the past three weeks, they’ve converted on 14.7% of power play opportunities, with the season rate sitting at 18.8%, which is 12th in the league.
The resurrection of the Utica penalty kill has been astounding over the past several weeks. It wasn’t that long ago that the Comets had the absolute worst P.K. in the American League, as it hovered in the mid-70’s in terms of successful kills 20 games into the season. It has been steadily rising for a while and now sits at 81% on the year, which is 18th in the league. Over the course of the seven games covered in this article, the Comets killed 28 of 32 penalties, a rate of 88%.
After sitting in 11th place in the conference for six straight weeks, the Comets have finally dislodged themselves. Unfortunately, they moved down instead of up. I suppose a nine-game losing streak will do that to you. At least the Comets have managed five points in that span, but obviously that isn’t going to be enough to move the needle in a positive direction.
This weekend the Comets will face a pair of teams that are substantially higher than they are in the standings. The Albany Devils have traditionally had Utica’s number, but the Comets have defeated them twice already this season, both times in early December.
Saturday marks the second time that the Comets will face the Hershey Bears (WSH) this season, following a 4-2 back in mid-November.