Utica Comets get crucial win against Syracuse
UTICA — The winner of Friday's night's game between the host Utica Comets and the Syracuse Crunch would be walking out of Adirondack Bank Center in sole possession of second place in the North Division late in the season, and by a one-goal margin that team was the Comets.
"That's a good hockey team over there. They work so hard. They're a very worthy opponent. And it makes for games like tonight. You get up by a couple goals and you feel like you're going to be able to take a breath, but that's just not the way it works with these guys. They just keep coming at you," said Comets head coach Kevin Dineen after the win. The Comets led by as much as three but a goal with 59 seconds left got the Crunch within one.
"I liked our overall effort tonight," Dineen said. "It's nice to get that first one out of the way. Every game is important right now. Everyone is on everyone else's heels," he said as the team started a stretch of three games in three days.
The Comets opened the scoring on a power play when Brian Halonen scored his 17th goal of the season with 8:22 left in the first period. Robbie Russo fired a shot from the point that was saved but the rebound was right there for Halonen on the doorstep. He backhanded the puck past Crunch goalie Max Lagace to make it 1-0 for the home team. Russo earned his 20th assist of the season and Graeme Clarke got his 28th.
Lucas Edmonds tied the game just under two minutes later when he scored his 13th goal of the season on a rebound.
In the second period, Brian Pinho made a couple plays to help the Comets take a 3-1 lead into the second intermission. First it was a nifty entry pass to Timur Ibragimov halfway through the period to get Ibragimov behind the defense. He finished with a snap shot for his third goal since coming to Utica as part of the trade that sent Timo Meier to the Comets' NHL parent club, the New Jersey Devils. Pinho earned his 16th assist of the campaign.
Pinho got his second point of the period when he got a piece of a point shot by Reilly Walsh that went past Lagace with 1:09 left in the middle frame. It was his 10th goal and fourth multi-point game this season. Walsh got his 29th assist to re-take the team lead. Jeremy Groleau earned his eighth helper of the season.
"I liked our overall demeanor. The way we had composure with the puck. We didn't start the period well. We had some turnovers at the blue line," Dineen noted. And Pinho agreed, adding, "At the start of the period we weren't playing our best. We got away from our game plan a bit. After five minutes or so we were talking amongst ourselves, like 'We have to get back to our game plan.' And we did and that's how we got it rolling as a team." He concluded, "Everyone did a really good job tonight."
Pinho said that his goal was just a product of what the coaches preach: "Getting to the net," get second chance opportunities. "Walshy had a heads up play. We kind of made eye contact quick and he just ripped it off the left side of the net and it hit me."
Dineen said getting Pinho back from injury and producing the numbers that had him leading the team early in the season is important. "One hundred percent, yes. He went cold there for a long stretch there and it was a challenge to get production out of both sides of the puck." Dineen noted that in playing Friday with younger players Ibragimov and Filip Engaras, Pinho "showed great leadership." And "they were a real driver of our team tonight, so very strong game for that crew."
"I'm just trying to do my part to help the team win. And whatever that is I'm going to do it," Pinho said, no matter what the role.
The Comets pushed the lead to three when Tyler Wotherspoon scored his fourth of the season on a shot from the point that made its way through traffic in front. Simon Nemec earned his 16th assist of the season on his defense partner's goal. That made it 4-1 with 13:18 left in regulation.
Syracuse closed in but it was not enough. Gage Goncalves' 10th goal of the season with 11:10 left made it 4-2. Then, with the goalie out for an extra attacker, Cole Koepke scored with 58.5 seconds left, his sixth of the season.
Isaac Poulter continued to play well in net for Utica while Nico Daws remains out. He made 24 saves to improve to 5-1-1-0 in March.
Utica improves to 31-23-6-2, breaking a tie for second place with the Crunch but with one more game played than Syracuse.
The Comets host the Rochester Americans at 7 p.m. Saturday then play at Syracuse at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Dineen said, "We're 10 games left in the year. We have to play within the structure we give them. Over the course of the year, the work ethic and getting the one on one battles, that's not a negotiable conversation. They're not dumb either. They see us getting a lot healthier. There will be some hard decisions for us to make in the next couple days" regarding who will suit up each night. That should get players working hard to make sure they stay in the lineup, he indicated.
Pinho remarked on the big win over a rival. "This is a very important time of year. They're a great team. We always have to battle against them. We're ready for it. We're excited. We're ready for this stretch at the end. We just hope to be playing our best hockey." He added, "We're just going to stick to our game plan, work our tails off and everything should take care of itself."
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