American Hockey League

Walsh, Comets ready for next challenge

📝 by Patrick Williams

Shoot the puck!

Visit nearly any building in hockey, and the odds are good that the home fans will deliver that message loudly when they see fit.

Especially in Utica, where the Comets play in one of the AHL’s loudest buildings. And especially in the closing seconds of a Calder Cup Playoff contest in which the home team is desperately working to send the game into overtime. Nobody wants to see a series lead dissolve into having to play a deciding game.

Sometimes those admonishments might even work.

Comets defenseman Reilly Walsh saw — and heard — exactly that last Friday night. And lo and behold, the puck somehow found the back of the net and forced overtime, where Utica took the game and sent themselves into the North Division semifinals, a series that begins tonight in Toronto.

It had been a trying night for the Comets, and Laval Rocket goaltender Cayden Primeau’s stellar play certainly had not helped the mood inside Adirondack Bank Center. With the Rocket facing elimination in the teams’ best-of-three first-round series, Frederic Allard’s second-period tally had provided a 1-0 lead that the visitors continued to hold deep into the third period.

Nico Daws headed to the Utica bench, pulled for a sixth attacker with 1:40 to go in the third period. Utica had just killed off a Laval power play, and that extra skater further shifted momentum back to the Comets after the Rocket had taken six unanswered shots.

“It was the game right there,” Walsh said of the penalty kill, the result of a Tyce Thompson hooking minor with 4:02 to play. “If they scored to go up two, it would have been really tough to come back from. When we got that kill, we felt like we got the momentum back again.”

Alexander Holtz directed a left-side shot toward Primeau with 1:13 to play that set off a net-front scramble. Comets captain Ryan Schmelzer then nearly jammed in the rebound only to have Primeau stop one more chance.

“[Laval] did a really good job getting in lanes and blocking shots, so basically we were trying to get anything through down low just to try to outnumber at the net,” Walsh continued.

But the Comets stuck with it. Under heavy pressure, Laval iced the puck with 17.5 seconds to go.

Head coach Kevin Dineen deployed his top weapons. Leading scorer Graeme Clarke, Nolan Stevens and Brian Pinho went up front. Holtz manned the half-boards. Walsh and standout rookie Simon Nemec took the points. Pinho then won a right-circle draw back to Walsh, who surveyed his options before dishing the puck off to Holtz. A shot attempt from Holtz caught Laval captain Gabriel Bourque’s left skate, but Holtz recovered the loose puck.

Walsh then slipped over to the left point, eventually took a pass from Holtz, and then dispatched the puck cross-ice to Nemec. By that point, the Rocket had sagged back slightly.

“Honestly, I had kind of forgotten that there wasn’t that much time,” Walsh explained. “So I passed it over, and I remember the crowd yelling, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot!’

“It reminded me that there was not a lot of time left at all.”

Cool beyond his 19 years, Nemec returned the puck back to Walsh, who immediately launched a long shot that eluded Primeau’s right blocker with exactly two seconds remaining. Utica’s 27th shot of the night had finally solved Primeau.

“I shot it kind of toward the net as hard as I could, it had eyes, and it went right through,” Walsh recounted.

The goal sent Comets fans into pandemonium as Walsh celebrated at center ice before being mobbed by Nemec and his teammates. Once overtime arrived, Utica jumped on the Rocket quickly and ended the series with Samuel Laberge’s goal at 2:45.

National Hockey League general managers aim for these kinds of high-pressure Calder Cup Playoff moments for young prospects like Walsh, and sometimes they get them. Walsh, a 24-year-old third-year pro out of Harvard, went to the parent New Jersey Devils in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft. He finished second to Clarke in team scoring with 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists) in 71 games during the regular season, but he had just scored the biggest goal of his pro career.

It was a big moment for the organization too, after Utica failed to win a playoff series after going wire-to-wire in winning the North Division in 2021-22. This year’s club needed until the regular season’s final weekend to finally secure a playoff berth. Moreover, they went 6-7-0-2 in the final month-plus of the regular season, landing them a date in the always-dicey best-of-three first round against Laval. Utica had lost five of six meetings with the Rocket in the regular season.

But the Comets pulled themselves together quickly, allowing just one goal in two games — including a 4-0 shutout win in Game 1 at Place Bell. Laval employed one of the most up-tempo attacks in the AHL, but Utica managed to disrupt the pace.

“We made an emphasis on if we play disciplined and stick to our structure… Not giving them chances on the rush, managing the puck in the neutral zone was big for us,” Walsh said. “From there, just kind of working them low. They play man-on-man, so we knew our forwards could play a heavy game down low, cycle through them, and get them tired.

“From there, that limits their energy to go back on the rush.”

So now it’s on to the Marlies. The division semifinals are a best-of-five, which allows for a bit more time to feel out the series — but only a little. While the Marlies have not played since April 16, the Comets at least have some playoff hockey behind them now. And they have a Calder Cup series win, just the second for a New Jersey affiliate in the last 25 years.

“It’s huge for us that we got a taste of the playoffs, and to play as well as we did,” Walsh said. “I think the end of the season had its ups and downs, and we kind of cut it close to even getting into the playoffs. It wasn’t up to our standards, but when it came down to it, we got a taste of some playoff-like hockey down the stretch before the playoffs started.

“Having [played one series] will serve as an advantage and is something that we can use as momentum going into Game 1 against Toronto. It starts off in their place, so we’re going to have to do some damage on the road, something that we’ve been familiar with the whole season.”

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