Weekend notebook: Comets still learning lessons from last year

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams


Last season’s early exit from the Calder Cup Playoffs left a bitter taste for the Utica Comets, one that still guides their thinking more than eight months later.

A campaign that opened with an AHL-record 13 consecutive wins and a North Division regular-season title ended abruptly in a division semifinal loss to Rochester. Fourteen players from last season’s Comets roster are back with the club for another crack at a run that they hope goes much longer this spring.

Utica is trying to walk a line between taking away lessons without that experience, but captain Ryan Schmelzer admits that is a challenge.

“I can tell you we’re still pretty still pretty bitter about it, for sure,” Schmelzer acknowledged. “But it is a new season, and you have to move on from it.”

They also have something bitter to deal with more recently, and that is their ongoing rivalry with the Syracuse Crunch. After winning 11 of 14 meetings between the teams last season, the Comets are 0-3-0-0 against Syracuse in 2022-23 and have been outscored 18-5, including a 5-1 defeat on Monday afternoon. The I-90 rivals meet in a home-and-home weekend set beginning tonight in Utica, with the second-place Comets five points up on the fourth-place Crunch.

“Certainly there were a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” Comets head coach Kevin Dineen said of Monday’s loss, in which he was unhappy with his club’s puck management. This weekend’s games are opportunities to put the week’s practice lessons into use.

The Comets had uneven start to the season, battling to build some level of consistent play while going 8-9-3-1 over the first two months. They had shown they were capable of playing to a high standard, but some blown leads and inconsistency held them back.

“There’d be moments,” Schmelzer recalled, “where we were playing the way we want to play, that’s in-your-face, pressure all over the ice, and [having a] high level of execution.

“Then the next night, you see a complete 180, a different team.”

On Dec. 16 against Bridgeport, Utica went into the third period down 2-1 before rattling off four unanswered goals, including Schmelzer’s game-winner. That started a 12-game point streak, tied for the AHL’s longest this season, as well as a six-game home winning streak that they take into tonight’s contest with Syracuse.

Tonight also begins the second half of the 72-game season for the 19-11-5-1 Comets. Last year’s club went wire-to-wire to win the division but had cooled off down the stretch, something that seemed at least somewhat worrisome at the time and even more so with hindsight.

“From the guys who were here last year, we don’t want to repeat what happened,” Schmelzer said. “Maybe we weren’t playing our best hockey going into [the postseason], and this year we’re going to learn from that and realize that it’s okay if we don’t peak early. That’s the kind of mindset that we’ve had in the room and as a group.”

Now that the Comets find themselves with a less secure grip in the standings, the head-to-head meetings with the hard-charging Crunch — the teams play each other 11 times over the final three months of the regular season — will be critical.

“Those are major points swings,” Schmelzer said. “I think that’ll just play right into our game plan of having a higher standard each and every night. We’re still desperate. We’re urgent. We know how important these games are.

“But just the fact that we’re in a playoff race here, it heightens with each and every moment of the games, and I think that’s really good for a group to learn and experience it.”

Clearly the Comets have a blueprint that works. Sticking to it is a different type of challenge, which is why Dineen has been hammering home and re-emphasizing his key tenets to play with that intensity and in-your-face pace that he and Schmelzer have seen. The long AHL season can require some refresher courses, however.

“I think we’ve been consistent in our message and how we have to play to have success,” Dineen said. “When you see it in action and it works, it’s not a daily grind. I also know that you can lose your way a little bit.”

Work that continues tonight before another fired-up Comets crowd at the Utica Aud is work that can guard against another quick exit from the Calder Cup Playoffs come this spring.

“We know what it feels like,” Schmelzer said of postseason disappointment. “The guys that were here last year are making sure that doesn’t happen again.”


QUICK SHIFTS

The Canucks and Wranglers stage the final game of Calgary’s three-game visit to Abbotsford when they clash in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week on Saturday evening (10 ET/7 PT) .

The Wranglers won the opener, 3-2, on Wednesday when Matthew Phillips scored hsi league-leading 22nd goal of the season just seven seconds into overtime. Second in the Pacific Division, the Wranglers hold a four-point lead on the third-place Canucks going tonight’s a rematch tonight in Abbotsford.

🏒 Two more AHL players made their NHL debuts this week, taking the season total to 43 AHL graduates.

Forward Jonathan Gruden debuted with the Pittsburgh Penguins in Monday’s game vs. Anaheim. The third-year pro has already set a career-high with 11 goals for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and has 16 points in all over 32 AHL games this season.

Forward William Dufour made his NHL debut on Wednesday when the New York Islanders hosted Boston. Dufour has put up 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) through 37 games with Bridgeport.

🏒 Extended homestands are something of the norm for the Charlotte Checkers, who wrap up another one at Bojangles’ Coliseum this weekend. Isolated on the AHL map, Charlotte’s opponents come to town for two or three games per visit; similarly, the Checkers’ road trips are generally multi-city tours.

Charlotte concludes a six-game home stretch — their second of three such homestands this season — when Cleveland comes to town for games Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Hit hard by injuries and recalls to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Monsters have lost 11 of their last 13 games (2-9-2-0), including two defeats to the Checkers in Cleveland last month.

Those circumstances make this weekend’s series a potentially dangerous one for the Checkers, who have climbed to third in the Atlantic Division but are just five points ahead of eighth-place Springfield. Handling their business this weekend is paramount before they open a five-game road trip on Wednesday in Utica.

“I think we are a tough group,” said defenseman Santtu Kinnunen, whose third-period goal helped the Checkers to a 3-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last Saturday. “[Head coach Geordie Kinnear] has a vision of the game, and he wants us to play with it. He likes a tough game also. He demands…we do everything 100 percent.”

🏒 With points in seven straight (3-0-2-2), the Hartford Wolf Pack are preparing for their own challenges this weekend as well.

After a win and an overtime loss against Providence last weekend, the Wolf Pack face the Bruins two more times this weekend, beginning tonight at the XL Center. Then Rochester comes to town on Saturday; the Amerks are third in the North Division and bring a five-game road winning streak into the weekend. Finally, the Pack return to Providence on Sunday afternoon.

🏒 The Laval Rocket welcome a pair of division leaders to Place Bell this weekend, with the Hershey Bears in town tonight and the Toronto Marlies visiting Saturday afternoon. Laval is 5-0-1-1 in its last seven home games, and is coming off a big 5-2 victory in Rochester on Wednesday night.

The Rocket are facing lineup challenges thanks to a crush of injuries with the parent Montreal Canadiens. With the Habs placing forwards Joel Armia, Jake Evans and Juraj Slafkovsky on injured reserve this week, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Rem Pitlick were recalled to Montreal, where they join forward Jesse Ylönen, goaltender Cayden Primeau and defenseman Justin Barron. Pitlick had a goal and an assist for the Canadiens in their 6-2 loss to Florida on Thursday.

Laval’s own injured list includes defensemen Nicolas Beaudin, Madison Bowey, Torey Dello, and Otto Leskinen as well as forwards Brandon Gignac, Danick Martel and Jan Mysak.

🏒 January always means it’s time to hit the road for the Toronto Marlies.

As the Toronto International Boat Show takes over Exhibition Place, Coca-Cola Coliseum has become the “world’s largest indoor lake for boaters” and the Marlies take off for an eight-game road trip.

Toronto opened with a 7-5 win in Rochester last Saturday, and took a 6-5 shootout win at Belleville on Wednesday, their sixth consecutive victory. This weekend, the Marlies are in Belleville and Laval before heading west to see Abbotsford and Manitoba next week.

🏒 Always-talkative Iowa Wild head coach Tim Army is starting to like what he sees from his players, who bring a five-game winning streak into the weekend.

The Wild, who have also won five in a row on home ice, host Milwaukee tonight and tomorrow. They headed into the Christmas break with five straight losses, and while Army was still reasonably pleased with his club’s play during that slump, losses are losses. Getting away for a few days helped the Wild, Army believes.

Since then, Iowa has won seven of eight, a stretch that began with back-to-back wins over Colorado on Dec. 28 and 30. The Wild knew they had to be ready or risk seeing that five-game losing streak turn into something even more dire.

“You had better be ready to play when you play Colorado,” Army said. “They play a terrific team game, and they’re going to play hard, and it’s going to be physical. It’s going to be a playoff kind of atmosphere, a playoff-type game.”

Army also thinks that the Wild laid some of the groundwork for this month’s run that week against the Eagles.

“I think we were able to win the games because we did things the way we needed to do things,” he said. “When they had the better of the play, we were able to kind of dig ourselves out and get the momentum back because we were doing things right. Guys weren’t trying to do things on their own.

“We’ve been in that stretch since then.”

🏒 The Texas Stars have shown a knack for late-game heroics this season. They had a wild come-from-behind 6-5 win against Manitoba on Nov. 18, in which they scored twice in the final 1:02 of the third period before winning in overtime. Last Saturday against Milwaukee, the Stars rang up three goals in the final 5:33 of regulation for a 5-4 win.

Up and down the Texas lineup, there is little for an opponent to exploit, and the club is on a 13-1-2-0 charge since Dec. 1 as they prepare for a visit to Manitoba for games Saturday and Sunday.

Defenseman Thomas Harley, a 2019 first-round pick by the Dallas Stars, has been one of the biggest success stories this season as he works to earn a full-time National Hockey League role. Harley’s offensive abilities are abundant, but Dallas wanted Harley to work closely with head coach Neil Graham and the Texas coaching staff to tighten his defensive and off-puck play.

The effort has been a success. Along with Graham and forward Riley Barber, Harley will represent Texas at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell in collaboration with Manulife Bank on Feb. 5-6 in Laval. With Harley’s much-improved defensive play and Graham’s fastidious work shaping the club’s systems play, the Stars are looking dangerous.

“The score is going to reflect it eventually if we just keep playing our way and our game for 60 [minutes],” Harley said. “There are not a whole lot of teams that can stick with us for 60.

🏒 Sometimes coaches worry that too much time at home can be dangerous. Any such concerns for the Coachella Valley Firebirds would have been misplaced.

The Firebirds have adapted quite well to their new home since opening it with a win over Tucson on Dec. 18. They are 8-1-0-1 at Acrisure Arena, 10-0-1-0 in their last 11 overall, and on a 21-3-3-1 tear that has them on top of the overall league standings with a .771 points percentage on the back of a 25-6-3-1 record.

The Firebirds will get a reminder of life on the road Saturday when they make a day trip to Ontario to face the Reign, their first visit to Toyota Arena. It’s then back home to face San Diego on Sunday before a two-game trip to Iowa next week.

🏒 Are the Henderson Silver Knights at long last on track?

Henderson put together perhaps the highlight of its season to date when it swept Calgary in back-to-back games at Dollar Loan Center last weekend. And there was no letdown to begin this week, either, as they downed Tucson on Wednesday, 4-1. The Silver Knights can add to their three-game winning streak when they visit the Eagles on Saturday and Sunday; Henderson is 6-2-0-0 all-time in Colorado.

Since a 2-10-0-0 start to the season, the Silver Knights have gone 13-12-0-3. And for all of their early troubles, the Silver Knights are only a point behind the seventh-place San Jose Barracuda in the Pacific Division playoff chase.

🏒 An annual tradition returns in Grand Rapids with this weekend’s Great Skate Winterfest.

The 34-hour event will feature every Griffins player and coach skating for one hour at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids, a short walk away from Van Andel Arena, to benefit the Griffins Youth Foundation and provide more than 400 children with the opportunity to participate in hockey.

Beginning Saturday at noon, the event opens with Winterfest featuring family activities and public skating. Following that night’s Griffins game against the Springfield Thunderbirds, players and coaches will then take shifts skating with fans and other local hockey clubs until the event ends Sunday at 10 p.m.


QUOTEBOOK

🗣️ “He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met in my life. He was definitely more than a coach to me. It’s hard to put into words what he did for me, what he means to me.”

— San Jose Barracuda rookie forward Thomas Bordeleau on Rochester Americans head coach Seth Appert. Bordeleau played two seasons with the US National Team Development Program while Appert was a head coach there.