Halonen hopes to stay hot for Utica Comets
UTICA — Brian Halonen is on a heater right now for the Utica Comets. The left wing has six goals in his last seven games.
Halonen joined the team last season in time to get 12 games under his belt. He came from Michigan Tech, where he tallied 53 goals in a four-year career.
Halonen — or Halo as head coach Kevin Dineen refered to him Wednesday after practice — was an undrafted free agent out of college. But, the coach said, “the way he shoots the puck” has elevated him from where he was evaluated then to “discussion as one of the top players in the country” from the class of 2022.
“He’s added a level of physicality to his game that has been impactful in our lineup. He’s really starting to round out,” Dineen said. The team sent him down to ECHL Adirondack for a game earlier this year and he earned an assist and a recall back to Utica.
In the past two months, the coach said, Halonen has been “not only a good player for us but the kind of player who can help drive a line. Put him on a line and things tend to go well.” He’s scored 14 goals and collected 11 assists in 50 AHL games this season. He’s third on the team in goals.
Going into the season, the Comets were looking for goal scorers, as the top four from last season had either earned promotions to the New Jersey Devils or moved on to other teams. When the Devils traded Andreas Johnsson as part of the blockbuster to acquire Timo Meier, that meant the Comets lost another top goal producer. But Halonen has become a source of scoring. Dineen said he’s shown he can “recognize a moment…recognize an opportunity.”
Halonen, who wears number 24 and turned 24 in January, said his success has come from “playing with very good players and those players making really good plays.” He credited Nolan Foote and Jack Dugan for great passes to set up his most recent goals.
He’s also tied for the team lead with four power-play goals. “Whatever position they put you in, you try to do your best,” but his spot on the ice with the man advantage, usually looking for a one-timer from the left faceoff circle, is familiar to him. “I have some level of comfort there. I played that position in college. And I like to shoot the puck. It’s been working my way.”
Of the season so far, he said, “It’s been an up-and-down journey. I’ve just been trying to take it day by day. I’ve had my share of struggles when I really wasn’t playing well. It took me a while to find my game. The one thing you can control is your effort, and that kind of worked me out of it.” He added, “I have to keep the effort up to try to keep it going as long as possible.”
Last season he joined the Comets after finishing at Michigan Tech. This season he had training camp and some experience with the AHL to draw upon. “It’s all a learning process, I’d say. And I’m still going through it. It’s something that takes a while. It takes work. And you’re going to make mistakes. I think I’ve done my best to learn from those mistakes and gain experience and try to be a good player for this hockey team.”
The team is in second place in the North Division and about to begin a stretch of three games in three days. They’re also the first three games of a span of six in nine days. The Comets host the Belleville Senators at 7 tonight.
“When we’re playing well, we can put ourselves up against any team in the league,” Halonen said. He pointed to the team’s season-best 12-game point streak, which coincidentally ended on Jan. 11, Halonen’s birthday.
“We’ve shown that we’re capable of doing those kinds of things and being that kind of team. The consistency and the success on special teams have made a difference.” As for the upcoming games, “We have a lot of division games left. Those are huge games.”
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