Utica Comets finish weekend with 2-1 mark as point-streak ends
A three-game weekend that started off on a positive note for the Utica Comets, ended in a sour way.
The Comets — in a battle for positioning in the seven-team North Division with the regular-season winding down — dropped a 5-2 road decision on Sunday afternoon at the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Two empty-netters from Lehigh Valley made the margin look larger in a tight game when 29-year-old Jake Theut made his American Hockey League debut.
The regulation loss came after Utica scored a 4-3 overtime win over visiting Belleville with Alex Holtz’s second goal Friday. Utica also scored three times in the third period to earn a 4-1 win at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday.
“I think there’s a full realization of what we are and how we have to play to have success,” Comets coach Kevin Dineen said after Friday’s win. “If we are porous on defense and just rely on our excellent goaltending we’ve had all year, we’re just leaving things to chance. I think there is a buy-in on that. I think there is some leadership reinforcing that. I think that’s making a difference in our game.”
Sunday’s setback ended a three-game win stretch and a seven-game point-streak (6-0-1-0) for the Comets (29-21-6-2 overall), who remain in second place in the North Division with 14 regular-season games remaining.
Utica’s 66 points are two more than third-place rival Syracuse, though the Crunch has played two fewer games. Toronto has a firm lead on the top spot, sitting 17 points ahead of Utica.
It is a key spot for the Comets in the North because the three highest seeds will receive byes into the best-of-five division semifinals.
The top five teams in the North Division qualify for the playoffs. Fourth-place Rochester, Laval, Belleville and seventh-place Cleveland are separated by three points.
Utica is set for a trip to Canada this week. The Comets play 7 p.m. Wednesday at Belleville and then have two games at 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at Laval.
There was a concerning development for Utica Sunday involving captain Ryan Schmelzer.
With under a minute left in the second period, Schmelzer was hit by a Lehigh Valley player’s stick in the legs while attempting a shot and he fell to his knees before sliding awkwardly into teammate Brian Halonen in front of the Phantoms’ net. Halonen fell on top of Schmelzer, who immediately grabbed for his left knee.
Schmelzer needed help getting off the ice and didn’t return for the third period.
There was no update Monday regarding Schmelzer, according to the team.
Goalie Nico Daws missed all three games over the weekend with a lower-body issue. It is possible he could return Wednesday.
The Swedish winger has been a boost offensively since his return from a lower-body injury that kept him out of four consecutive games.
He scored on a penalty shot Friday that helped the Comets tie the game in the first period after falling behind 2-0. Robbie Russo also had a power-play goal for the Comets.
He added the game-winner Friday after coming off the bench less than a minute into overtime. He got a pass near center ice and headed into the zone before cutting to his right and firing from the top of the right circle.
Comets coach Kevin Dineen said while Holtz’s “fingerprints” were a big part of the win, the winger would be the first to acknowledge he’s got some areas in his game to “clean up.” Holtz was not available for an interview following Friday’s game because of team travel.
“(There) … were some pew-ewwy (bad) plays that can’t happen during the course of the game. He has to work that out of his repertoire because (Devils coach) Lindy Ruff is not going to give him the rope that I do,” Dineen said. “There’s a learning process were in the middle of. He’s got to keep on learning and understanding that there’s nothing given. He’s got a special, special skill when the puck is on his stick. He’s got to continue to make sure hes plays a responsible two-way game. That’s why he’s here as well to help us win hockey games.”
He added an assist Saturday and then helped on both of Utica’s goals Sunday to give him three goals and three assists during a four-game point streak. He has 10 points in nine games with Utica this season.
Offense adding up for Nemec
Šimon Nemec, the New Jersey Devils’ second overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft, has scored in three consecutive games for the first time in his North American career.
He scored the tying goal Friday in the third period and notched a goal early the first period Saturday.
The next day, the 19-year-old defenseman scored a highlight-worthy goal. In the third period when he went to the net, got a pass from Holtz and scored his ninth of the season with one knee on the ice. He leads the team’s defensemen in goals.
Clarke: 21 goals-25 assists-46 points
Daws (28 appearances): 2.83 GAA/.901 SV%/14-12-2 record
Poulter (6 appearances): 3.43 GAA/.883/4-1-3
x-Schmid (20 appearances) 2.53/.908/10-6-3
Theut (1 appearance) 3.14/.906/0-1-0
x-not active on Comets roster
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