UTICA, N.Y. – The Utica Comets looked to rebound from their first loss of the season. However, a multitude of call-ups and injuries compounded overnight to stack the deck against them.
Friday night, versus the Providence Bruins, the Comets leading scorer, Reid Boucher left the game midway through the second period after tweaking his knee. Boucher’s absence, coupled with the previous call-up of Sven Baertschi, meant the Comets would be without two of their top three scorers.
The team did get some help back in the lineup, however, as centerman Tyler Graovac returned off of IR. Graovac had not played since injuring his knee in the Comets season opener against the Binghamton Devils.
SINCE WE LAST MET
Amazingly, in the 24 hours between games, the Canucks recalled defenceman Oscar Fantenberg from his conditioning stint. Fantenberg’s appearance was brief, but he made his presence known with nine shots on net over two games played.
THE STARTING LINEUP
The absence of Boucher required some major shake-ups to the Comets starting lineup. The Comet’s coaching staff also elected to swap out one of the teams better-performing defencemen in Josh Teves, for rookie d-man Mitch Eliot. Teves is tied for first in the AHL for +/- and has been one of the Comet’s best defencemen to start the season. Given that the Comets have banked a month’s worth of wins, this writer guesses that the coaching staff felt that now would be a safe time for experimentation.
|Bailey (#95)||Perron (#27)||Goldobin (#77)|
|Jasek (#9)||Graovac (#44)||MacEwen (#15)|
|Bancks (#34)||Hamilton (#36)||Lind (#13)|
|Arseneau (#18)||Malone (#17)||Stevenson (#26)|
|Juolevi (#48)||Chatfield (#5)|
|Brisebois (#55)||Eliot (#52)|
|Blujus (#8)||Rafferty (#25)|
|Jonah Gadjovich||Reid Boucher||Carter Camper|
|Stefan LeBlanc||Richard Bachman||Josh Teves|
The game itself was an unmitigated disaster for the Comets. After two periods of play, the Comets found themselves down by a score of six to zero. There was simply zero intensity from the entire Comets collective throughout the majority of the 60 minutes of regulation time.
The story of the contest was the abysmal pairing of Olli Juolevi and Jalen Chatfield, who were directly responsible for four of Rochesters’ six goals against the Comets. Juolevi’s skating continues to be a huge question mark. Still, his labored skating Saturday night did not paint his abilities in a positive light, as his inability to keep pace with Rochester’s speedy forwards was routinely exposed.
It was challenging to take away anything of note from Saturday’s effort against the Americans, as the Comets were, start-to-finish, dominated in nearly every facet of the game.
Instead, lets quickly examine why the Comets double-header weekend went so poorly relative to their first month’s, objectively, spectacular results.
1. The Impact of Sven Baertschi
Baertschi was always going to be a luxury for the Utica Comets this season. No one should have expected Baertschi to remain with the Comets for the entirety of the season. The Comets should consider themselves lucky to have even gotten seven games with him in their daily rotation.
In Baertschi’s brief time with the Comets, the team went undefeated while outscoring their opponents by a margin of 35 goals to 11. Baertschi was on-ice for 11 goals-for and just four against while scoring points on 91% of the goals scored with him on the ice.
Honestly, when the Comets had Baertschi in the lineup, he was always a threat, and continuously contributing offense. His insane rate of contribution is what helped the Comets collective run-up the score so many games in a row.
As Zane McIntyre put it in his “first-star of the game” interview, after a 45-save performance over Rochester.
“It’s nice when the guys score seven goals, and you can kinda take a breath back there. Just relax and make saves, so made it just a fun game to play.”
Safe to say, with a player like Baertschi on the ice helping the team establish early-leads in every single game, is a stress-relief to all players on the Comets roster, not just the goalies. And his absence was truly felt immediately this weekend as the Comets struggled tremendously to string together shots on net, let alone goals.
For most of this season, the Comets have spent their time-on-ice in advantageous positions. The Comets may have forgotten, along the way, what it takes to generate leads for themselves and how to battle back from adversity. Without Baertschi in the rotation, the team has no “game-breaking” player who can single-handedly win them games.
2. Inexperienced Defense Group
The defense group for the Comets has had a relatively easy go to start the season. Their goalies were performing above average, and their forwards were being propped up by NHL talent who could run up the score on a nightly basis.
With the absences of Ashton Sautner, Fantenberg, and former Canuck/Comet Alex Biega. The Comets are down to a defensive group that has just 279 Pro North American hockey games under their belt. The lone vet remaining in the bunch, Dylan Blujus, has 243 games of AHL experience alone. Blujus, however, has been relegated to the 7th D role, as the coaching staff of the Comets elects to test their all-prospect d-corps on a nightly basis.
The young d-groups work in their end, to date, has been masked by the Comet’s ability to run up the score while playing alongside NHL talents. There is cause for concern moving forward, that this young d-group can’t succeed without a stable veteran presence to settle things down when the team faces adversity.
3. Goaltenders Performing Above Expectations
As previously mentioned, a lot of the Comet’s defensive problems this season have been covered up by the stellar goaltending of McIntyre and Di Pietro.
It was only a matter of time before one of the Comets goalies had “one of those nights.” McIntyre was the first to have “one of those nights.” McIntyre gave up four goals on seventeen shots. Di Pietro came in as his relief, only to give up two goals on sixteen shots.
The goalie tandem has done well so far this season, with McIntyre and Di Pietro remaining in the top twenty of AHL goaltending. Their job does become infinitely more complicated; however, when the team’s goal-scoring completely dries up. Two shutout losses back-to-back put a lot of pressure on the goalie tandem to avoid mistakes. Mistakes that they used to afford when the team could score five or more goals every game. Not so much when the team can’t even generate five dangerous scoring chances over 60 minutes.
The issues that plagued the Comets this weekend are, technically, nothing new. Even through the Comet’s undefeated run, the evidence was there that Baertschi’s stellar gameplay had been masking most of the Comets underlying problems from getting exposed against opponents.
With the erosion of the Comets top players, the team is now in a similar position to where they were at the end of last season. Last season’s Comets struggled heavily to generate offense and were atrocious defensively. The only difference right now is the Comets goalie tandem hasn’t yet fallen off a cliff.
Fortunately, they’ve only lost two out of their first ten. The Comets have three full days of rest and training to figure out what their team identity is in the absence of so many great players. The team must figure out what it takes to win if they intend to curb the losing streak and get their season back on track.
CODY’S THREE STARS
1. The Utica Comets Faithful that stayed until the bitter end at the Adirondack Bank Center
The Comets Trajectory?
The Comets return to action next Wednesday night when they face off against the Binghamton Devils. Puck drop is at 7:05 pm EDT / 4:05 pm PT.
If you want more Utica Comets coverage, you can always visit The Comets Harvest for a more detailed look into each Comets game!