📝 by Patrick Williams
Utica Comets head coach Kevin Dineen has seen enough in his nearly 40 years of pro hockey to have anticipated that his team would face turbulence at some point.
The Comets, who set an American Hockey League record with 13 consecutive wins to open this season, have suffered back-to-back regulation losses for the first time after dropping a 7-6 decision on the road to the Rochester Americans on Wednesday night. Now Utica will attempt to stop this mini-skid tonight when they welcome the Syracuse Crunch in tonight’s AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 ET/6 CT).
Of course, everything is relative, and even with the two recent defeats the 19-4-3-0 Comets still lead the Eastern Conference (.788) as they enter this weekend’s home-and-home set with the archrival Crunch. Four of Utica’s next five games will be against Syracuse, with another home-and-home match-up set for next weekend. Utica will face a Crunch team that has started hot since returning from a three-week hiatus due to league COVID-19 protocols; since Jan. 5, the Crunch have won three of four to move to 11-11-2-1 on the season (.500).
Last Friday the Comets nearly let a 4-2 lead at home against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins slip away before they pulled out a 6-5 shootout win. A night later at home to the Hartford Wolf Pack, they had just 22 shots in a 2-1 setback. In Rochester, the Amerks had the Comets in a 2-0 hole just 1:50 into the game and opened up a 7-2 lead before Utica nearly pulled off a successful rally with four unanswered goals that put a scare into their opponents.
That push-back left Dineen feeling a little bit better about the night.
“That was a good sign,” Dineen said. “The group that we have, they’re entertaining to watch. At the beginning of the [season], it was entertaining fun. And [Wednesday] night was probably not entertaining on either bench to watch how that unfolded, for us to give up a couple goals early in the first two minutes, and then give the game a lot of personality in the last little bit as well.
“But certainly I think that it makes a little statement that your team doesn’t have much quit to them. So for me, I take the positives, and I move forward, and we learn from areas that we have to continue to keep stressing with our group.”
Utica is also dealing with the losses of forwards Nolan Foote, A.J. Greer, and Marian Studenic on recalls to the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils. In addition, Utica is missing goaltenders Akira Schmid, who is with New Jersey, and the injured Nico Daws. Neither goaltender has played with the Comets since Dec. 8, leaving Marek Mitens to make seven consecutive starts.
Seeing Syracuse should put the Comets right into their challenging weekend.
“You have to match their work ethic, that’s what I see,” Dineen said of the Crunch. “I was watching a pre-scout for Rochester, and they played Syracuse the previous couple of games, and I think Syracuse is just known for their work ethic. Their power play (21.9 percent, fifth in the AHL) is very dynamic right now. So, you’ve got to match their intensity right off the bat, and you have to have a level of discipline to have success against them.
“So, you know what? That’s great. It will be a good challenge for us. It’s our closest rival, and we’re excited to get going again.”
Comets captain Ryan Schmelzer, whose two goals in Rochester helped to fuel the rally, views the upcoming schedule ― four games in nine days against the same opponent ― as something akin to playoff hockey.
“Every year that you play [the Crunch], they play the same way,” Schmelzer said. “They’re really hard-nosed. They don’t give you much room out there. They’re coached really well. They just don’t make a lot of mistakes. I’m really excited for this chance to face them, because we know it’s going to be hard, fun hockey, but it’ll be a great test for us.”
And seeing the Crunch can wipe away any lingering feelings about the Rochester loss for a team that has not had to deal with much losing this season.
“You sure don’t want it to happen,” Dineen said of Wednesday’s loss to a stubborn Amerks team that has given the Comets three of their seven losses this season. “But at the end of it, we talked about it, we addressed the areas we need to do, areas that have been strengths of our game that may be slipping, or areas that we have to hit head-on that we have to be better at.
“Then you just say, ‘Hey, let’s go. Get ready to run.’”
WOLVES ATOP THE FOOD CHAIN
There is a new club in the AHL lead.
The Chicago Wolves and their 23-5-1-1 record (.800) now top the league. A 4-0 home win against the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday coupled with Utica’s loss pushed the Wolves into first place.
Wednesday’s win, the Wolves’ 15th in their past 16 games, came against a Griffins club that had been on a six-game point streak (4-0-2-0). Stefan Noesen provided two goals and captain Andrew Poturalski’s one goal and one assist moved him 11 points clear of Rochester’s Michael Mersch for the league scoring lead with 42 points in 27 games. Poturalski has 15 points in six games against Grand Rapids this season, all Chicago victories.
Now the Wolves, off to the best start in franchise history, will have veteran goaltender Alex Lyon back from the Carolina Hurricanes in time to begin a five-game road trip tonight against the Iowa Wild, a major addition with Eetu Makiniemi still injured. Lyon has gone 9-1-1 for the Wolves with a 1.79 goals-against average that ranks second in the AHL and a .929 save percentage that is tied for third overall.
MARLIES START AHL TOUR
A 10-game trip that will take the Toronto Marlies to seven different stops begins Saturday against the Hershey Bears.
The 15-10-1-1 Marlies (.593) hit the road having won four consecutive games on a five-game homestand at Coca-Cola Coliseum as they try to chase down second-place Rochester in the North Division. The Marlies’ trek will take them to Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Hartford, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (two games), Grand Rapids, Belleville (two games), back to Grand Rapids, and finally Cleveland before they return home to face Rochester on Feb. 5.
Toronto is 22nd in the AHL on the power play this season but had a pair of strikes on the man-advantage in a 4-2 win against Belleville on Wednesday afternoon. The recent success has head coach Greg Moore pleased as the Marlies head into this crucial road trip.
“We’re in that part of the season where the guys have started to figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” Moore told the team website after Wednesday’s win. “It’s a good sign when a group like this at this time of the year is starting to mature as quickly as they are.”
MOOSE MAKING TRACKS
Somehow, some way, the Manitoba Moose continue to find ways to win despite a roster increasingly hit by recalls to the Winnipeg Jets.
Last weekend the Moose went to Texas and swept a pair of games from the Stars before shutting down the host Milwaukee Admirals, 2-0, on Wednesday. At 19-9-1-1 (.667), Manitoba is on a 4-0-0-1 run going into play tonight at Grand Rapids and holds second place in the Central Division.
But Thursday saw another round of roster losses as goaltender Mikhail Berdin, defenseman Simon Lundmark, and forwards Jeff Malott and Austin Poganski all headed to the Jets. In a 3-0 win at Detroit on Thursday, the Winnipeg lineup included eight players who have skated for the Moose this season, including defensemen Declan Chisholm and Dylan Samberg who made their NHL debuts.
GULLS SCOOP UP ELVENES
Add a big weapon to the mix for the San Diego Gulls as they prepare to host the Abbotsford Canucks in back-to-back games this weekend.
On Tuesday the parent Anaheim Ducks plucked forward Lucas Elvenes off waivers from the Vegas Golden Knights and assigned him to San Diego.
Elvenes, 22, had been with the Pacific Division rival Henderson Silver Knights, where he had 10 points (two goals, eight assists) this season. He went to the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic while a rookie with the Chicago Wolves and has totaled 20 goals and 62 assists in 116 career AHL contests.
GOING FOR GOLD
Two familiar and highly respected AHL names will represent the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing next month.
Ness, a 31-year-old Minnesotan, has been a rock again this season and has seven assists in 25 games with the P-Bruins. Through 561 regular-season AHL games, he has notched 267 points (45 goals, 222 assists). With Hershey in 2018-19, he earned a spot on the AHL Second All-Star Team after leading all defensemen with 50 assists and 55 points.
Nagle, 34, has been a welcome help for a Lehigh Valley club beset by an ever-changing crease and is 5-0-3 with a 2.74 GAA and .897 save percentage in eight games. Between 2018 and 2021, he played 33 regular-season games with the Grand Rapids Griffins in his home state of Michigan.
Team USA plays its first game Feb. 10 against host China.
AROUND THE AHL
🏒 Long-time NHL forward Eric Staal is back in the AHL for the first time since 2005 after signing a professional tryout contract with Iowa on Thursday. The 37-year-old arrives back in the AHL having played 1,293 NHL games and winning a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. He last played in the AHL in the 2004-05 season when he had 77 points in 77 regular-season games with the Lowell Lock Monsters.
🏒 Roy Sommer collected his 800th career victory as an AHL head coach on Saturday as San Jose defeated Henderson, 6-3. Sommer now has 164 more wins than Hockey Hall of Famer Fred “Bun” Cook, who is second all-time.
🏒 With New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant unavailable due to NHL COVID-19 protocols, Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch is on recall to guide the Blueshirts.
🏒 Brian Pinho returned to the Hershey lineup last weekend for the first time since Nov. 5, a 22-game absence, and he picked up his first goal of the season Wednesday in a 4-3 shootout loss at home to the Bridgeport Islanders.
🏒 Bridgeport’s win at Hershey took the team’s point streak to six games (3-0-2-1).
🏒 Lehigh Valley extended forward Hayden Hodgson’s AHL contract through the 2023-24 season. A training-camp tryout, the 25-year-old Hodgson has supplied 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 20 appearances with the Phantoms. In other good news for the Phantoms, the team reports that forwards Ryan Fitzgerald and Tanner Laczynski, who each are recovering from hip surgery, are in town and skating.
🏒 The Charlotte Checkers took two of three games on a Connecticut road trip, capped by a 2-1 overtime win at Hartford on Wednesday. Forward Grigori Denisenko had both goals, and Joey Daccord allowed just one goal for the fourth time in his past six games.
🏒 Newly acquired forward Alex Nylander picked up three assists in three games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last weekend. Nylander, 23, came to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization last week from the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Sam Lafferty. Through 26 AHL games between Rockford and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, he has 15 points (eight goals, seven assists).
🏒 The Laval Rocket returned to play Wednesday for the first time since Dec. 17, and slipped past Syracuse, 4-3. Laval is on the road in Springfield and Hartford this weekend.
🏒 Cleveland Monsters forward Carson Meyer has been cleared to play, according to the team. Meyer has seven points (five goals, two assists) in 21 games but has been out of the line-up since Dec. 11.
🏒 Bakersfield, which extended its points streak to eight games (5-0-2-1) with three wins in Abbotsford last week, has brought in forward Matt McLeod on a professional tryout from Cincinnati of the ECHL; McLeod is the older brother of former Condors forward Ryan McLeod, who is now with the Edmonton Oilers.
🏒 Manitoba and Chicago are tied for the top defense in the AHL at 2.40 goals-against per game. Rochester, at 3.83 goals scored per game, still leads the league, followed closely by Ontario (3.81).
🏒 The Rochester power play (30-for-109) is clicking at 27.5 percent, best in the AHL. Stockton still has the AHL’s top-ranked penalty kill at 89.3 percent (109-for-122).
🏒 Three teams are honoring the 1990’s this weekend: Providence is hosting Hartford tonight to kick off 90’s Weekend at Dunkin’ Donuts Center, featuring a salute the 1999 Calder Cup championship team. In Rochester, the Amerks will host 90’s Night on Saturday vs. Belleville and recognize their 1996 champions. The Springfield Thunderbirds will honor the 1990’s by donning Springfield Falcons jerseys on Saturday for Throwback Night.
ON THE MOVE
🏒 A total of 109 AHL graduates have made their NHL debuts this season, including 12 in the past week.
🏒 Hartford defenseman Braden Schneider played his first NHL game on Thursday night, scoring a goal in the New York Rangers’ 3-0 win at San Jose. Schneider, 20, was the 19th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, and he has nine assists in 24 games with the Wolf Pack this season.
🏒 Rockford’s Lukas Reichel, another product of the 2020 NHL Draft (17th overall), made his NHL debut in the Chicago Blackhawks’ win over Montreal on Thursday. The 19-year-old forward is the reigning AHL Player of the Week and has 20 points (a team-leading 11 goals, nine assists) in 20 contests with Rockford this season. IceHogs defenseman Jakub Galvas also made his NHL debut this week, playing 23:40 against Columbus on Tuesday.
🏒 Ontario forward Samuel Fagemo made his NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night. The Swedish-born 21-year-old was a second-round pick by the Kings in the 2019 NHL Draft.
🏒 Rochester’s Jack Quinn made his much-anticipated NHL debut with the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. The 20-year-old forward, who went to Buffalo as the eighth pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, played 16:30 for the Sabres in his debut and recorded three shots. Quinn then returned to the Amerks for Wednesday’s game with Utica and recorded a goal and three assists, taking his season total to 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) through 21 AHL games.
🏒 Three San Diego players made their NHL debuts this week with Anaheim – goaltender Lukas Dostal and forwards Jacob Perreault and Brayden Tracey. Tracey (2019) and Perreault (2020) both are Anaheim first-rounders; Tracey leads the Gulls with 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 24 games while Perreault is second in team scoring at 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 23 games.
🏒 Bakersfield lost goaltender Stuart Skinner on recall to Edmonton on Thursday. Skinner, 23, has gone 6-0-2 with a 1.96 GAA and .925 save percentage in eight games for the Condors this season.
🏒 Syracuse added veteran help at forward by signing P.C. Labrie to a two-year AHL contract. Labrie has started quickly with the Crunch, posting a goal and two assists in his first three games since the move.
A long-time Pennsylvania rivalry resumes tonight when the Lehigh Valley Phantoms visit Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The teams complete their home-and-home series Saturday night at PPL Center… Belleville is in Rochester tonight and Saturday before a holiday matinee in Syracuse on Monday afternoon… The Cleveland Monsters wrap up a five-game road swing through the Central Division when they stop by Rockford tonight and Saturday… The Texas Stars visit the Eastern Conference with a trip to Charlotte beginning Saturday… The Colorado Eagles will have Milwaukee in for games tonight and Saturday night… Henderson and Ontario continue their I-15 rivalry this weekend; the Reign host tonight while the Silver Knights return the favor on Saturday… The Tucson Roadrunners go to San Jose tonight and move on to Stockton to face the Heat on Saturday… Two games in San Diego start a stretch of five of seven games on the road for Abbotsford… Saturday’s entire 15-game slate can be watched for free on AHLTV.
“The first thing that you get from Aaron Ness is an extremely quality person and teammate. Anyone [who] has had an opportunity to play with him or coach him knows how special he is in that regard. As a defenseman, he’s all-in. He’s never going to cheat you. He plays the game a certain way and holds himself to a certain standard.”
— Providence Bruins head coach Ryan Mougenel on his 2022 Olympic defenseman, via the team website.
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.