📝 by Patrick Williams
Utica Comets defenseman Kevin Bahl is well aware that the Rochester Americans have been a major headache for his club this season.
Utica will take a .726 points percentage, second-best in the league, into tonight’s AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 ET/4 PT) against the Amerks.
Rochester is the lone team in the American Hockey League to defeat Utica (28-9-5-0) three times this season. It was the Amerks who stopped the Comets’ AHL-record 13-game winning streak to start the season with a 4-2 victory on Nov. 24. Rochester also took a 4-3 overtime decision Dec. 8, and a wild 7-6 win Jan. 12.
“They’re an all-around team and very competitive,” Bahl said of the Amerks. “They’re big, physical, and they’ve got skill guys. It’s a big one to look forward to, and [Rochester presents] games that are extremely competitive.”
With the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Bahl on the back end, Utica can counter some of the size that Amerks like captain Michael Mersch (6-2, 209), Dominic Franco (6-5, 218), and Brett Murray (6-5, 227) deliver up front.
The 21-year-old Bahl skates well and has been a durable presence for head coach Kevin Dineen, playing 36 of 42 games along with four more games in the National Hockey League while on recall to the New Jersey Devils. He came to the organization in the Taylor Hall deal with the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16, 2019; included in that haul for New Jersey were Comets forward Nate Schnarr and Devils forward Dawson Mercer as well.
Bahl, a classic shutdown defenseman, was originally a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. He played 27 games as an AHL rookie in 2020-21, finishing with five points (one goal, four assists). This season he has 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) and a plus-17 rating in those 36 games for the Eastern Conference-leading Comets.
“I think right now [the season] is really starting to take off,” Bahl said. “It’s been a lot better, confidence-wise and playing-wise. I think I’m starting to get really get up to a level I want to get.”
Playing with veterans like Russo and Wotherspoon “shows you don’t always have to be moving or working at 100 miles per hour,” Bahl said. “You can just play a really smart game and a really calm game. It’s going to conserve a lot of energy to play smarter.”
With a rare stretch of three losses in their past four games, including Wednesday’s 6-2 road defeat to the Toronto Marlies, seeing a fierce rival like Rochester back in Utica should be push the Comets into their weekend schedule very quickly. Following tonight’s game, the Comets will head south to visit the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Saturday.
Utica received rookie goaltender Nico Daws on loan from New Jersey on Thursday. The 21-year-old has gone 11-3-2 in 17 games for the Comets and holds a 2.44 goals-against average with a .917 save percentage. Utica lost goaltender Akira Schmid on recall to New Jersey in the swap, however.
Rochester will take a four-game points streak (2-0-1-1) into Utica. At 24-15-3-2 (.602), the third-place Amerks are trying to chase down second-place Toronto while fending off the fourth-place Laval Rocket in the North Division. In a key 3-2 overtime road win against the Bridgeport Islanders on Tuesday, the Amerks got two goals from top forward prospect JJ Peterka as well as 32 saves from 22-year-old goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Rochester visits the Syracuse Crunch on Saturday before meeting Laval at home Sunday afternoon.
But first there is the latest Rochester-Utica clash for fans to sample.
“Every game [with Rochester] is a battle,” Bahl said.
WOLVES GET EVEN DEEPER IN NET
A stash of young goaltending talent with the Chicago Wolves grew by one this week.
Pyotr Kochetkov joined the Wolves from Nizhny Novgorod of the Kontinental Hockey League after being reassigned by the Carolina Hurricanes. The 22-year-old, a second-round pick by Carolina in the 2019 NHL Draft, joins the recently signed Jack LaFontaine, standout AHL veteran Alex Lyon, and young prospect Eetu Makiniemi, who has been out of the Chicago lineup since Dec. 17.
Kochetkov joins the Wolves after going 10-10-2 record with a 2.23 GAA, .926 save percentage, and two shutouts in 23 KHL games this season; his save percentage finished sixth in the league. That performance continued the upward progress for Kochetkov, who won the Best Goaltender honor at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship; his 1.45 GAA and .953 save percentage helped snag a bronze medal finish for Russia in that tournament.
Kochetkov joins the 24-year-old LaFontaine, a 2016 third-round pick who signed with Carolina on Jan. 9 after leaving the University of Minnesota early. LaFontaine’s 2020-21 season included winning the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in Division I, Big Ten Goaltender of the Year, First-Team All-American, and a spot as a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award after he finished 22-7-0 with a 1.79 GAA and .934 save percentage in 29 games.
Since joining the Wolves, LaFontaine has divided time with Lyon and is 1-0-3 with a 2.31 GAA and .875 save percentage through six appearances.
THE NOISE RETURNS TO BELLEVILLE
The Belleville Senators will again play before friendly fans at home.
Belleville announced this week that CAA Arena capacity will be filled up to 50 percent, beginning with tonight’s game against North Division rival Toronto. That means that up to 2,200 fans can attend Belleville home games. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required until at least March 1.
Belleville head coach Troy Mann delighted in the opportunity to have his club face a near-capacity crowd at Hershey last Saturday night in a back-and-forth 5-4 defeat.
“I think [last Saturday] certainly showed some of our younger guys what this league is made of in terms of people in the stands and atmosphere,” said Mann, who spent eight seasons in Hershey as a head coach and assistant coach.
“The greatest thing about hockey is the crowd creates those momentum changes. I know [Giant Center] very, very well and what it can do for the home team. So I certainly feel that was a learning experience for us.”
THUNDERBIRDS BOOST BLUE LINE
Defenseman Scott Perunovich is on his way back to the Springfield Thunderbirds on a conditioning assignment from the St. Louis Blues.
Perunovich, 23, has been out of the St. Louis lineup since Jan. 15 with an upper-body injury. Before the injury, he had six assists in 19 games with the Blues. Perunovich began his rookie season in Springfield and had at least one point in each of his 12 games (two goals, 16 assists), the longest scoring streak in Thunderbirds history. He was also named AHL Player of the Week for the week ending Oct. 24.
Perunovich is the latest boost for the Springfield lineup by St. Louis. NHL veteran forward James Neal debuted with the Thunderbirds last weekend, scoring twice and adding an assist in two games. The return marked his first AHL action since Nov. 15, 2008, with the Manitoba Moose.
The Thunderbirds, who have won three straight games, are on the road to face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Saturday before a Sunday afternoon meeting with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
RELIEF FOR ABBOTSFORD
Good news followed a concerning Wednesday night for Abbotsford Canucks defenseman Jack Rathbone.
After a hit in Abbotsford’s game against the Bakersfield Condors, Rathbone departed the game on a stretcher. But the parent Vancouver Canucks announced Thursday that Rathbone had been discharged from a Bakersfield hospital and will accompany the team to Colorado this weekend for a pair of games against the Eagles.
Rathbone, 22, has been an exciting presence in the Abbotsford lineup in his second pro season and is the most recent winner of the AHL Player of the Week honor after a 10-point week (three goals, seven assists in three games). That performance included five points (one goal, four assists) in an 8-5 win against the Tucson Roadrunners on Feb. 7.
Coming out of Harvard, Rathbone has been an exceptional find as a 2017 fourth-round pick. He already has played nine games with Vancouver this season as he battles to become an NHL regular. With Abbotsford, he has 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in only 19 games.
AROUND THE AHL
🏒 Bakersfield went big in replenishing the club’s coaching staff this week, adding AHL Hall of Fame member John Anderson as an assistant on interim head coach Colin Chaulk’s staff for the rest of this season. The 64-year-old Anderson won 424 AHL games with the Chicago Wolves, fifth-most in league history. He went to the Calder Cup Finals three times, winning in 2002 and 2008, and also took three division titles in his 10 AHL seasons with Chicago. Anderson was inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame in 2019.
🏒 Four AHL clubs should receive lineup help soon with the conclusion of men’s hockey competition for Canada and the United States at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. Utica defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon (two assists) and Bakersfield forward Adam Cracknell (one assist) played all five games with Canada; the U.S. side had Providence Bruins defenseman Aaron Ness (one assist in four games) and Lehigh Valley goaltender Pat Nagle.
🏒 The Stockton Heat still hold first overall in the AHL with a .744 performance (27-8-3-1).
🏒 Andrew Poturalski of the Wolves has expanded his hold on the AHL scoring lead to seven points. Poturalski now has 59 points (21 goals, 38 assists) in 41 games. T.J. Tynan of the Ontario Reign added another four points and has 52 (eight goals, a league-best 44 assists) in 34 contests.
🏒 With eight goals in his past five games, Abbotsford forward Sheldon Dries now has a league-leading 24 goals on the season. It is a new career high for Dries, whose previous best was 21 with Colorado in 2019-20.
🏒 Hartford Wolf Pack captain Jonny Brodzinski has a goal in 10 of his past 11 games and has contributed six assists in that stretch as well.
🏒 Providence forward Justin Brazeau signed a one-year extension on his AHL contract with the team. In his first season with Providence after time spent in the Toronto Maple Leafs system, Brazeau has provided eight points (six goals, two assists) in 19 games and earned considerable praise from head coach Ryan Mougenel.
🏒 Two Toronto Marlies have new contracts for next season. Defenseman Mac Hollowell put his name on a one-year extension with the Leafs; the 23-year-old Hollowell, a fourth-round draft pick in 2018, has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 23 AHL games this season. In addition, second-year forward Bobby McMann will return next season on a one-year AHL contract extension. The 25-year-old has chipped in 16 points (11 goals, five assists) in 28 games this season; he celebrated the deal with a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s 6-2 win against Utica, the Marlies’ fifth consecutive win.
🏒 Marlies goaltender Erik Källgren had 32 saves in Wednesday’s win over Utica. The Marlies are on a six-game point streak (5-0-1-0).
🏒 A season-high four consecutive wins have pushed the Rockford IceHogs ahead of the Milwaukee Admirals for third place in the Central Division. Rockford took a 4-1 road win at Milwaukee on Wednesday night in what was only the second loss in the past 13 games for the Admirals. Milwaukee is now fourth in the division.
🏒 Two goals from forward Joel L’Esperance helped the Texas Stars defeat the visiting Grand Rapids Griffins, 3-1, on Wednesday. The Stars’ eight-game homestand can finish with a winning mark this weekend with a pair of games against the San Jose Barracuda. So far Texas has gone 2-3-1-0 in facing Manitoba, Milwaukee, and Grand Rapids.
🏒 A five-goal third period Wednesday gave Colorado a split of a two-game home set with the Henderson Silver Knights. Eagles forward Kiefer Sherwood contributed a pair of goals and an assist in the 6-3 win.
🏒 Lucas Elvenes of the San Diego Gulls had his first multi-goal AHL game, scoring twice in a 5-1 win at San Jose on Wednesday. The Anaheim Ducks prospect has heated up with San Diego since being claimed off waivers from the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 11. He has 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 14 games with San Diego. The Gulls finished 7-1-0-0 against San Jose in the teams’ season series.
🏒 Chicago’s plus-19 third-period goal differential (47-28) tops the AHL.
🏒 Tucson forward prospect Matias Maccelli has 29 points (four goals, 25 assists) in his past 16 games. Teammate Jordan Gross leads all AHL defensemen with 35 points (seven goals, 28 assists) and 123 shots in 37 games.
🏒 Ontario leads the AHL at 4.05 goals per game and possesses the number-one power play at 27.1 percent (45-for-166). Stockton remains first on the penalty kill at 89.3 percent (147-for-167) and has scored a league-high 10 shorthanded goals.
🏒 Never count out the Heat in the third period. They have rallied to win four times in the 10 games in which they have trailed after the second period.
🏒 Acrisure Arena, the Coachella Valley Firebirds’ future home, had its topping-off ceremony Wednesday. Coachella Valley will become the AHL’s 32nd franchise in 2022-23 as the new affiliate of the Seattle Kraken. The new building in Palm Desert, Calif. will seat more than 11,000 and include a practice facility.
🏒 Grand Rapids will retire Michel Picard’s number 7 jersey Saturday night at Van Andel Arena. Picard is the Griffins’ all-time leading scorer and a two-time Calder Cup champion with Springfield (1991) and Portland (1994).
ON THE MOVE
🏒 The goaltending picture in Laval has settled down. With goaltender Andrew Hammond acquired by Montreal from Minnesota last week, the Canadiens have sent Cayden Primeau and Michael McNiven back to Laval for more playing time.
🏒 With Hammond now in Montreal, goaltending space with the Iowa Wild has opened up for prospect Hunter Jones. Minnesota took Jones, 21, as a second-round pick in 2019. After playing 19 games with Iowa in 2020-21 as a rookie, he has been limited to six AHL games this season, going 2-3-1 with a 2.81 GAA and .909 save percentage. Jones rejoined the Wild this week on recall from the ECHL.
🏒 The Cleveland Monsters lost goaltender Jean-Francois Berube to recall by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Cleveland plays a pair of games at Charlotte this weekend.
🏒 Lehigh Valley forward Maksim Sushko earned his first NHL recall of the season Thursday and joined the parent Philadelphia Flyers. Sushko, 23, has 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 38 AHL games. Twelve Phantoms have been recalled to Philadelphia this season.
🏒 Ontario sent forward Adam Johnson to Lehigh Valley for future considerations Thursday. Johnson found himself among a deep group of forwards and had six points (one goal, five assists) in 28 games with the Reign. The move returns Johnson to Pennsylvania, where he had an 18-goal season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2018-19.
🏒 Rockford goaltender Arvid Soderblom was recalled by the Chicago Blackhawks and made his second career NHL start on Thursday night vs. Columbus.
🏒 Joe Snively picked up another goal for the Washington Capitals in Thursday night’s 5-3 win at Philadelphia. Snively is up to six points (three goals, three assists) in eight games with Washington after compiling 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 35 games with Hershey.
Hershey has a three-game swing through New England this weekend, starting tonight in Providence. The Bears move on to Bridgeport on Saturday before returning to Providence for a Sunday matinee… The P-Bruins are in Hartford on Saturday evening… Toronto and Belleville have a home-and-home series beginning tonight in Belleville… The Marlies then host Laval twice, beginning with Monday’s Family Day matinee at Scotiabank Arena, home of the parent Maple Leafs… The Rocket visit Syracuse tonight and Rochester on Sunday… Milwaukee plays the first of three games at Manitoba starting on Sunday afternoon… After hosting Rockford on Saturday, Grand Rapids will visit the IceHogs on Sunday… Iowa visits Chicago on Saturday and Sunday… Henderson goes to Tucson for games Saturday and Sunday… A Bakersfield-Stockton home-and-home series begins Saturday with the Condors hosting. The Heat are home to complete the set on Sunday… Ontario and San Diego also have a Saturday-Sunday home-and-home set that concludes at Toyota Arena.
“The fan base needs to get ready for a whole bunch of shenanigans, and it’s going to be fun. There’s no lane that he doesn’t know in this operation, and he’s going to be a fantastic leader.”
— Colorado Eagles owner and chief executive officer Martin Lind to Eagles TV on Ryan Bach, who has been named the club’s new president and alternate governor. The former AHL and NHL goaltender had been on the organization’s coaching staff since 2005.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast. Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.