Comets stave off elimination with 4-2 win over Amerks

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ROCHESTER — The Utica Comets scored the first four goals Tuesday in a 4-2 win over the Rochester Americans to force a fifth and deciding game in the AHL North Division semifinal series. That winner-take-all game will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. back in Utica.

“The first three minutes they came so hard at us. It was a lot of pressure. I liked our reaction and our pushback,” said Utica head coach Kevin Dineen after the win. “We had to play with more pace to have success,” he added. And once the team weathered the initial push by the Amerks the Comets seemed to shift into high gear.

With its back against the wall in a game where a loss ends the season, Utica controlled the pace of the game for long stretches. They outshot the hosts 13-6 in the first period and 13-5 in the second. Rochester turned on the offense in the third, outshooting Utica 21-7.

The Comets went back to Nico Daws in goal. Daws won Game One but lost Game Two. Dineen went with Akira Schmid in net for Game Three but he was unable to get the win. Dineen said after the win that such a decision sometimes requires him to “rely on your gut and your heart.” Even so, he added, “We’d have been fine either way.” Daws ended with 30 saves and earned third star recognition for the effort.

The Comets got started on the right foot, scoring the only goal of the first period. It started with a turnover deep in the Rochester zone and ended on the stick of Nolan Foote. His shot low on the right side of goal beat Aaron Dell for the 1-0 lead just under seven minutes into the contest. Brian Flynn and Tyce Thompson earned assists on the goal. It was Foote’s first goal of the post-season.

In the second period, the Comets took complete control, establishing their first four-goal lead at any point in the series.

With 11:19 left in the middle frame, A.J. Greer doubled the lead when he took a long pass at the Amerks’ blue line and went in on a two-on-one. But he kept the puck, got a step on the defender and fired a wrist shot in as he drove the left side. Fabian Zetterlund and Shakir Mukhamadullin got assists on Greer’s fifth goal of the series.

The Comets struck again with 3:10 left in the period. After Dell stopped the initial shot on a two-on-one, there was a scramble for the loose puck. It squirted through the bodies and got across the goal line before any Rochester player could get to it. Greer, who got the initial shot, tallied his sixth goal of the playoffs, with assists to Chase De Leo and Zetterlund. It was De Leo’s first post-season point and Zetterlund’s fifth assist in the series.

That goal would prove to be the game-winner. And after the game, Greer said he liked what he saw from the team. “I think it was a full 60 (minute) effort, and everyone was dialed in. It’s moments like these that show how much everyone wants it.”

Almost immediately after that third goal the Amerks took two penalties that led to 1:30 of five-on-three play for the Comets. De Leo converted that advantage into another goal, one-touching a pass at the left side of the net past Dell to make it 4-0 with 1:38 left in the second. Alexander Holtz and Zetterlund collected assists. It was De Leo’s first goal of the playoffs and his second point of the period.

Rochester finally ended the shutout bid for Daws with 4:13 left in the game. The Amerks scored a pair of power-play goals late to make the game more interesting but it was essentially too little too late. First it was Arttu Ruotsalainen who sent a one-timer past Daws from the right circle with assists to Casey Fitzgerald and Lukas Rousek. The goal came with the Rochester goalie out for an extra attacker to make it a six-on-four advantage. Mark Jankowski converted on the man advantage with 50 seconds left to make it 4-2, tapping home a pass to where he stood at the top of the goal crease. J.J. Peterka and Jack Quinn had assists.

“Our defense was incredible,” said Greer. The team was down two regulars, with Reilly Walsh injured and Robbie Russo suspended for Game Four because of a hit he delivered late in Game Three. Greer said the defenders kept it simple, and “it fueled our offense.” He added: “Guys picked it up.”

“We played hard,” Dineen said. “I didn’t mind our Game Three either.” The team, he said, has to “play to continue to play,” because one more loss in the series would mean the end of the season. “It’s pretty easy to coach when these guys enjoy playing with each other so much.” And they’re showing it, he said. “You play hard and you get rewarded for it.”

Greer said there isn’t so much a single key factor to winning Game Five as just “keeping up the momentum.” They’ll look at the game tape to see what worked, but it’s clear that what worked Tuesday was pressuring the Amerks and allowing them no time when they have the puck, he observed. He concluded: “In front of our fans in our building, I’m confident.”

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