Gambardella, Greer goals help Utica Comets earn Game 1 win
Joe Gambardella’s goal for the Utica Comets on Tuesday had some added meaning.
After the 28-year-old affable Comets forward from Staten Island scored the team’s go-ahead goal in the third period, he pointed toward the rafters of the Adirondack Bank Center as he stood behind the Rochester Americans’ net to celebrate.
It was Gambardella’s way of honoring his wife’s late grandfather, Bob Ferenczi, who has been an important part of his life. He passed away Monday, Gambardella said.
“I am the man I am today because of what that man has taught me in the last six years,” an emotional Gambardella said Tuesday. “I definitely felt his presence on that goal.”
A.J. Greer helped make sure that goal remained special by scoring twice later in the third period to complete a three-point effort as the Comets overcame a sluggish start to pull away for a 6-3 win against the Americans in a physical opener between the rivals in the North Division best-of-five semifinals Tuesday night.
Gambardella’s goal – the seventh of his AHL career in 11 postseason games – happened near the midpoint of the third period after linemate Fabian Zetterlund’s backhand try glanced off the post. The puck dropped in front of the crease and Rochester goaltender Aaron Dell (34 saves). Gambardella skated in and tapped the puck past a frozen Dell.
“It has kind of been an emotional rollercoaster,” said Gambardella, who praised the effort of Zetterlund on the play. “I kind of feel like (my wife’s late grandfather) put that puck there for me.”
He said it was a similar feeling to three years ago when he had a goal the night after his grandmother passed away.
Gambardella said his teammates have helped him in recent days.
“We’re a family. We’re all brothers in (the locker room) and pick each other up,” Gambardella said. “We have a lot of character in that locker room.”
The Comets needed Gambardella’s goal after rallying from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 in the second period. Utica got off to a tough start after 10 days between games while waiting for Rochester to take its first-round series over Belleville.
“As the game wore on, we started to get our playoff mojo. I think early on it was a little bit men against boys. We couldn’t make a play, we couldn’t make a pass. It is a hard way to play the game,” said Comets coach Kevin Dineen, whose team outshot Rochester 40-22. “Over the course of the year, there’s a lot of games where we have found ways to show a little bit of resiliency and come back. That was certainly the case (Tuesday).”
Game 2 of the series is at 7 p.m. Saturday in Utica, with Game 3 at 5:05 p.m. the next day in Rochester.
“A short series like this, when it is only five games: Boy, oh, boy, getting off the hop is important,” Dineen said.
It was the first postseason meeting between a Utica AHL team and Rochester since April 24, 1993. Future NHL standouts Martin Brodeur and Olaf Kolzig were the goalies in that game, a Rochester win.
This win – the first in the postseason for a Utica AHL team since 2018 after no playoff format the last two seasons – came before a packed crowd. The fans, decked out in white T-shirts to create the well-known “whiteout” effect, made their presence known especially over the final 30 minutes. There was a "We want the Cup!" chant late in the game as well.
“It doesn’t get much better than that, honestly,” Gambardella said. “To see the whiteout was an unbelievable sight to see.”
Forward Tyce Thompson and defenseman Robbie Russo scored 59 second apart in the second period and captain Ryan Schmelzer – who Gambardella said helped rally the team in the locker room after the first period – scored the tying goal later in the frame as Utica overpowered its opponent over the final 40 minutes. It was Russo's first postseason goal since May 10, 2016.
Reilly Walsh and Nolan Foote each added two assists in support of Nico Daws, who totaled 19 saves in his first AHL playoff start.
Greer -- voted the Comets' MVP by team staff -- has 18 points in 12 games this season against Rochester after Tuesday's three-point effort.
Arttu Ruotsalainen -- one of the Rochester's top players -- continued his torrid pace with two slick goals for Rochester, including in the second period for a brief 3-2 lead. Rookie standout JJ Peterka also scored on the power-play as the Amerks had a 2-0 lead after just 6:03 of game time.
"We knew going into the second period after a long layoff that it was going to take a little bit to get our legs under us,” Gambardella said. “We’ve been in that position before. So it wasn’t anything new to us.”
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