Utica Comets aim to stay hot; Clarke earns Player of the Week honors
UTICA — In the midst of a recent hot stretch, the Utica Comets are looking to add more fuel to it.
The Comets have won a season-best four consecutive games – and six of the last eight – as the American Hockey League team returns from the short holiday break. The team went into the holiday break late last week with a two-game road sweep over North Division opponent Cleveland.
Consistency continues to be a point of emphasis for Utica, assistant coach Andrew Brewer said Tuesday. With three games remaining in the month, the Comets are 6-3-0-0 in December after a share of early-season struggles.
“The guys have played great lately. It is just trying to get that consistency in our game, night-in-and-night out,” Brewer said Tuesday afternoon. “I think something that we’ve been working on all year long is trying to improve the pace of our game. … Hopefully, we can continue to get that going after the break. We’ve had some results going into the break and I think that’s an accumulation of some good things the players did leading into the four-game win streak.”
Utica (12-9-3-1 overall, 28 points) has moved up the seven-team division standings with help from the recent success. Utica enters Wednesday’s game at divisional rival Rochester in fourth-place and two points back of the Amerks and Syracuse Crunch – which each had games postponed last Friday because of inclement weather.
Utica has home games Friday (Lehigh Valley) and Saturday (Belleville) on tap before kicking off a busy 13-game January with a visit to division-leading Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 3. Plus, the team still has to finish the suspended game from earlier this season against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The completion of that game is set for Jan. 24.
“I think any time we play these (North) division rivals, it is a four-point game,” Brewer said. “You’re always looking to bump them out of the standings position.”
Utica’s offense has picked up after a slow start. The team is averaging 5.75 goals over the last four games with offense coming from throughout the lineup. Utica’s power play has also moved up to 10th in the AHL (22.5%).
“I think offensively we’ve started to click a little bit,” Brewer said. “I think we’ve started to score some goals that maybe were missing earlier in the season and … (help from) some guys who were maybe a little bit off at the start of the year. It has been good to get that confidence.”
Third-year forward Graeme Clarke has been a big part of it with 13 points in his last eight games. He was rewarded Tuesday with the AHL’s Player of the Week honor after four goals and two assists in the Cleveland wins. He had a career-best four-point (two goals, two assists) game in last Thursday’s comeback win.
“He’s really worked at his game. He’s one of the hardest-working guys on the team,” Brewer said. “Offensively he’s working to get more inside and creating more chances.”
Clarke’s recent run has given him a team-best 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 25 games. He had 24 total points in 52 games with Utica last season. He’s followed by Nolan Stevens (eight goals, 18 points), Brian Pinho (eight goals, 18 points), defenseman Reilly Walsh (three goals, 15 points) and Nolan Foote (nine goals, 13 points).
Brewer said he expected everyone on the Comets’ roster to be an option for Wednesday’s game. He noted “some sickness” with “flu and colds” among the team before the break.
Brewer said he believed Dylan Blujus, who missed the last four games with an undisclosed injury, will be available to play. However, Blujus participated in Tuesday night's practice in a no-contact jersey which likely means he wouldn't play Wednesday.
The team recalled defenseman Jarrod Gourley from ECHL Adirondack earlier Tuesday giving the team seven players on the blue line. He had a goal and assist in his season debut last Thursday.
At the NHL level, Devils coach Lindy Ruff told New Jersey media that defenseman Ryan Graves is “week-to-week” with an injury. He joins John Marino, who is also out week-to-week.
It was unclear as of Tuesday evening if the Devils will call-up a player.
Defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk has already been recalled to New Jersey.
Prospect Simon Nemec is at the world juniors tournament and was named Team Slovakia’s captain. He had five shots in the team’s 5-2 loss Tuesday.
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