What a difference a year makes

by Mark Caswell, Jr. | AHL On The Beat Archive


If you look at the standings, you will see that the Utica Comets, like five other American Hockey League franchises, sit atop their respective division. The next thing you will notice is at 24 points, the Comets have the most points in the entire AHL. Look again and you will also notice that the season is still in its infancy stage, just 15 games into a long, grueling 76-game schedule.

That’s where you need to look just a smidge deeper in order to get the importance.
On November 18th of last year, the Comets sat dead last in the league with a record of 2-10-1-1, and just six points. The team averaged just 2.07 goals per game and were giving up an average of 3.50 per game. Current Comets point leader Cal O’Reilly had yet to step foot in the Utica Memorial Auditorium. Stanley Cup champion Kent Huskinswas just five games into his career as a Comet, and Jacob Markstrom was just another goalie on another team, far removed from the minds of Comets fans.
Fast-forward 365 days, and the Utica Comets’ world has flipped. The Comets pace the entire AHL with 24 points in 15 games. They’ve improved their goals-per-game average to 2.80, while allowing just 1.73 goals per game to this point in 2014-15. After instantly providing a spark to the Comets offense last season, O’Reilly leads the entire league in assists (15) and has been tabbed as the Comets’ captain.
Markstrom has morphed into a virtual brick wall, leading the AHL in wins (7) and shutouts (4) while ranking second in goals-against average (1.24), and save percentage (.955).
What is the key difference to this 180-degree turnaround? 
“I don’t think you can point at one thing,” said Comets head coach Travis Green. “Our returning players are a year older and have improved their games, [and] having upwards of 15 returning guys helps. Our players are competing hard and we have had a lot better goaltending to start this season than we did last year. We started last season with two young goaltenders and they struggled a bit to start the year, but were real good in the second half.”
The stats back up Green’s point about the team’s goaltending. In the first two months of last year, Joacim Eriksson posted a 4-10-1 record to go with a 3.13 GAA and an .895 save percentage. His counterpart, Joe Cannata, stood at 3-10-1 (3.47, .881) in mid-January. The team’s record followed suit, with the Comets going 11-20-2-3 over the season’s first 36 games.
The second half, however, was a completely different story. Both goalies put up winning records and improved their goals-against averages and save percentages. And the Comets’ record marched to the beat of the goaltending, as the team went 24-12-3-1 down the stretch.
The trend of hot goaltending has carried over into this season. Markstrom made headlines by preventing opposing teams from lighting the red light, collecting CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors (Oct. 20-26) as well as the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month Award for October. He made a bid for the AHL’s all-time shutout streak record, but ultimately fell 30 minutes and nine seconds short after going 238:08 without allowing a goal.
Eriksson, who has been alternating starts with Markstrom this season, has improved all of his numbers from last year too. To date, Eriksson has posted a 4-2-1 record, a .921 save percentage, and a 2.26 GAA.
Green also credited returning players and compete levels for the team’s success. Alternate captain Brandon DeFazio echoes that sentiment.
“Coming in this year we knew the city, the systems, and each other,” said DeFazio. “We understood how we wanted to play. We pride ourselves on working hard and getting better every day. It’s a culture we started to build last year and one that is continuing to grow over time.”
The current roster has 14 players that skated in a Comets sweater last season. That means a majority of players came into camp already aware of Green’s coaching style, a stark contrast to the zero players that knew what to expect from the rookie coach heading into last season.
The benefits of that are abundantly clear. One prime example is the exceptional play of the penalty kill unit. Last year the Comets killed just 80.6 percent of their opponents’ power plays, which ranked them 24th out of the AHL’s 30 teams. Currently the Comets boast the league’s fifth-best penalty-killing unit, working at 88.3 percent efficiency.
Let’s not forget about the young guys. Currently the Comets roster showcases three Vancouver Canucks first-round NHL Draft picks: Nicklas Jensen (2011, 21st overall), Brendan Gaunce (2012, 26th overall), and Hunter Shinkaruk (2013, 24th overall). Jensen and Shinkaruk have four goals each, one off the team lead, and Gaunce has netted seven points, tied for fifth in team scoring.
The 2014-15 season is off to an exciting start for fans, players, and staff alike. Mix in the team’s participation in the historic Toyota Frozen Dome Classic in Syracuse on Nov. 22, as well as hosting the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Turning Stone Resort Casino in January, and it’s a great year to be following the Comets. And if the Comets keep winning, it could go from a great year to a special year