UTICA, N.Y. – Imagine if the Utica Comets dropped eight straight losses after going undefeated through October.
After a getting shutout against Providence for their first loss of the season, that question was a funny joke/idea floating around.
Three straight losses later, and the Comets might be facing reality.
Could this Comets team actually be headed for symmetrical eight-game streaks to start the season?
Friday night against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, there certainly wasn’t much evidence presented against such a thing happening.
Once again, the Comets allowed their goaltender to get battered by high-danger scoring chances throughout the night en route to a 2-1 loss at home.
After stockpiling eight wins to give themselves a healthy point lead over their North Division rivals, the Comets now find themselves dropping rapidly to the bottom of the pack.
Holding a precarious lead over their Saturday Night opponent, the Binghamton Devils, the Comets desperately need a win before their season flies off the rails (if it hadn’t done so already).
SINCE WE LAST MET
Defenseman Jalen Chatfield was called up by the Canucks to sit in the press box after an in-game injury to Chris Tanev.
THE STARTING LINEUP
Coming into Friday’s matchup against the WBS Penguins, Head Coach Trent Cull once again elected to shake up his lines, despite the decent offense generated against Binghamton.
Seamus Malone slotted out of the lineup for career ECHL player Justin Taylor. Despite a couple unlucky bounces against Binghamton on Wednesday, Malone had been playing effectively as the Comets’ third/fourth-line center. Given his struggles over the summer due to his season-ending arm injury last year, Malone’s transition to an AHL center without a training camp has been quite impressive.
Given the team’s struggles to produce over the past three games, it was a bold move to shake up the lines as heavily as Cull did before the Comets’ Friday night matchup against the Penguins.
|Goldobin (#77)||Graovac (#44)||Lind (#13)|
|Bailey (#95)||Hamilton (#36)||MacEwen (#15)|
|Bancks (#34)||Jasek (#9)||Perron (#27)|
|Arseneau (#18)||Taylor (#14)||Stevenson (#26)|
|Juolevi (#48)||Sautner (#6)|
|Brisebois (#55)||Rafferty (#25)|
|Teves (#4)||Eliot (#52)|
|Michael Di Pietro (#64)|
|Jonah Gadjovich||Reid Boucher||Carter Camper|
|Stefan LeBlanc||Richard Bachman||Seamus Malone||Dylan Blujus (family matter)|
The Comets night started well, after Penguins defenseman Michael Kim took a high-sticking minor-penalty just 52 seconds into the game.
Luck was also on their side after the offensive zone faceoff draw to kick-start the power play.
Kole Lind stepped in for Francis Perron to win back the puck to Mitch Eliot along the blue line. Eliot walked to center for a wrist shot that bounced off the body of netminder Dustin Tokarski and out to Penguins defenseman Macoy Erkamps. Erkamps attempted to clear the puck wide of the goal, but instead flipped the puck over Tokarski’s head and into the back of the net. The own-goal officially gave Eliot the first professional AHL goal of his career.
The Comets failed to rally off the momentum of the opening goal, however, as they went on to concede twelve shots against while managing just seven of their own.
The second period was more competitive for Utica as they nearly went even in shots on goal with the Penguins.
Matching the physicality and size of the Penguins appeared to be difficult for the young Comets core, as the Penguins routinely set up shop in the bottom of the right circle or the slot for blistering point-blank blasts on rookie netminder Michael Di Pietro.
The inability to match the physical strength of the Penguins eventually led to their undoing.
In an attempt to prevent an odd-man rush for the Penguins, Teves took a blatant holding penalty to put the Comets on their fourth penalty kill of the game.
The Penguins didn’t hesitate to punish the Comets on the power play, either. One minute after Teves penalty, Trotman wired a blast from the Comets blue line over the right pad of a screened Di Pietro.
The Penguins left the Comets with no room to breathe either, as just 34 seconds later, the Penguins notched another to give themselves their first lead of the game.
The second and ultimately game-deciding goal also came from a blast from Trotman, only this time, Penguins center Jordy Bellerive got just the tip of his stick on the puck to redirect it past Di Pietro.
The two goals in 34 seconds was all it took to seal the Comet’s fate.
The Comets couldn’t even attempt to pull Di Pietro for the extra attacker. With less than two minutes remaining in the period, Zack MacEwen bumped into Tokarski after a late scoring chance. The bump earned MacEwen two minutes for goaltender interference and killed any hope the Comets had of tying the game late with the extra attacker.
* Physicality: This is the fourth straight loss for the Comets where their ability to match their opponent’s physical play has been questionable. On multiple occasions, Comets defenders had no answer to the Penguins forwards driving down the wing or setting up low around the net. It was more of a surprise to see a Penguin muscled off the puck than it was to see them left alone; it has become that common. Has the blueprint on how to beat the Comets been written? Now that the Comets have lost four straight, there should be concern with the coaching staff that they may have been figured out.
* Teamwork: Outside of a few plays between the defensemen and a few forwards, there wasn’t much to the Comets’ play set-ups against the Penguins. It has grown old for fans of the Comets to watch so many forwards try to 1v5 the opposing team. It did not go unnoticed that the majority of the Comets’ one-timer feeds ended up being sent into the skates or missed entirely by their linemates. That lack of communication between the team while they’re on the ice is evident.
Against the Penguins, rookie defenders Brogan Rafferty, Teves, and Eliot are doing everything they can to create space in the offensive zone for the forward groups to set-up passing cycles to shoot. Unfortunately, the forwards are playing as though they have no clue what their linemates are going to do, or what they should do to facilitate. It’s a vicious cycle of uncertainty that has lead the Comets to look stagnant and predictable in the offensive zone whenever they’re able to gain it.
* Goal-Scoring: In the wake of the loss to the Penguins, one has to be concerned with the Comets’ ability to generate offense. If we’re honest, the goal against the Penguins was a complete fluke. Take that off the scoresheet, and the Comets have scored just two goals in their last four contests. The line shake-ups aren’t helping things, but the players aren’t helping themselves. The chemistry that should’ve been forming from day one has eroded to nothing. The Comets currently have thirteen healthy forwards on their roster, and the two who’ve shown consistent chemistry and effective play throughout are presently sitting on the fourth line.
CODY’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
* Michael Di Pietro: Friday’s game against the Penguins should have been a ten-to-one blowout loss. The Comets gave up a ridiculous number of high-danger scoring chances from in close. Di Pietro ended his night with 29 saves on 31 shots, good for a 2.04 goals-against-average, and a 0.935 save percentage. On the year, Di Pietro now sits with a 1.96 goals-against-average and a 0.929 save percentage. Di Pietro has genuinely been the reason Comets were able to win eight in a row, and a reason why they’re not getting wholly embarrassed at home. He deserved better Friday night from the team in front of him.
* Mitch Eliot: After getting the games opening-goal, Eliot played like a man possessed. His skating was sharp, and his offensive skills looked on par with his contemporaries. Defensively, he did not look out of place and even had a few plays where he calmly distributed the puck while under substantial pressure. He had numerous scoring chances Friday against the Penguins, and helped lead the Comets with four shots on goal.
* Brogan Rafferty: Despite a couple misreads on the defensive side of things, Rafferty was lights-out against the Penguins. Rafferty ended his evening tied with his d-partner Guillaume Brisebois with three shots on goal. A lot of talk before Friday’s action against Wilkes-Barre went to whether Chatfield was the right call-up choice for the Canucks. This writer is a proponent of Rafferty as a future call-up, but for right now, it’s in his best interests to maximize his ice-time in a premier role with the Comets. His left-right tracking ability might hold him back from ever being a premier #1 RD, but at the very least, he can be a bonafide fixture to the team’s Top 4.
THE COMETS TRAJECTORY?
The Comets return Saturday night when they face off against the Binghamton Devils for their fifth of eight meetings this season. Puck drop is at 7:00 pm EST / 4:00 pm PST.
If you want more Utica Comets coverage, you can always visit The Comets Harvest for a more detailed look into each Comets game! Don’t forget to follow Cody on Twitter, either, for all your news and notes on Utica.