Laberge's OT winner helps Utica Comets sweep Rocket, advance to next playoff round
UTICA — The Cardiac Comets turned in a classic in their first home game of the 2023 Calder Cup playoffs.
Samuel Laberge, the hard-working Utica forward, played a key role as the no-quit Comets turned in another impressive effort against the Laval Rocket.
Laberge scored 2:45 into overtime and Nico Daws turned in another solid game as the Comets secured a comeback 2-1 victory over the Rocket on Friday in Game 2 to sweep the North Division first-round playoff series at the Adirondack Bank Center.
It is the first playoff series win for the Comets since 2015 when the team was the American Hockey League affiliate of Vancouver. Utica is in the second season as the New Jersey Devils’ affiliate.
“You can tell, the guys have character. We never give up,” said Laberge, who is from the Laval/Montreal area. “We were really ready for that overtime.”
Daws finished with 25 saves on Friday for his fourth career playoff win. He was coming off a shutout in Utica's 4-0 Game 1 victory.
“Dawsy made some huge saves and kept us in it (Friday),” Laberge said.
With the victory, the Comets advance to the best-of-five North Division semifinals against the top-seeded Toronto Marlies. Game 1 of the series begins at 7 p.m. Thursday in Toronto.
On Friday against Laval, Utica forced the 15-minute, 5-on-5 overtime after defenseman Reilly Walsh – celebrating his 24th birthday Friday – scored with two seconds remaining with an extra attacker on the ice.
It came after some impressive sustained pressure earlier when the Comets cycled the puck in the Laval zone and had countless opportunities over a three-minute span near the midpoint of the period.
Walsh’s goal sent an announced crowd 3,522 into one of the loudest sustained roars in recent memory.
It may have been matched by arguably one of the biggest goals of Laberge’s six-year pro career.
“The fans here (Friday) were incredible,” said Laberge, who scored his only other playoff goal in 2018 with the Texas Stars. “It was electric. Those fans, what a crowd. Seriously. I still have goosebumps talking about it. It was amazing. The fans gave us so much energy.”
With the Comets controlling in overtime – similar to how they had over regulation in Friday with a hard-working game on both sides of the puck against Laval – Devils prospect and 19-year-old standout defenseman Simon Nemec sent a puck toward the net where Laberge redirected the puck past Cayden Primeau (32 saves).
“I beat my guy to the net and boxed him out,” said Laberge, who had a career-best eight goals and 16 points in 43 regular-season games after missing nearly two months near the middle of the season due to injury. “Me and Nemo had eye contact – what a pass by him.”
As the team celebrated near center-ice with the raucous crowd following post-game handshakes, Comets coach Kevin Dineen – who earned his 400th win in the team’s overtime win over Syracuse in regular-season finale – acknowledged the crowd with a thumbs up and a subdued fist pump.
For much of the night, the Comets did everything they could to find the tying goal before finally breaking through. The team played solid defensively and had countless quality chances on offense. The two games against Laval are arguably the Comets’ best of the season.
“There’s so much emotion,” Dineen said. “I think a lot of times you understand that this is all part of the package. Your opponent always has a say in the outcome. But, we worked our tails off.”
While the Comets had everyone in the lineup play well, Walsh stood out. Besides his goal and several other chances, he also made a huge defensive play by sweeping a puck out of the crease after Daws made an initial stop with 2:15 remaining in the first period.
“He’s so impactful,” said Dineen, who noted that Walsh was only available for Game 1 of the postseason last year. “He plays such a big part in our group. He’s defending sincere and obviously dynamic on the offensive side.”
After a scoreless first period, Laval got the game’s first goal.
Frederic Allard made it 1-0 when his shot from the right point got through traffic and in with 12:59 remaining. The goal was a result of Laval making a push over the previous minutes.
The goal snapped Daws’ shutout streak of about 117 minutes.
It didn’t deter a team that is now excited to move on to the next round.
“We had up and downs (this season),” Laberge said. “It is fun to come to the rink every day.”
NOTES: Alex Holtz led the team with six shots, including many Grade-A chances. ... Daws’ six postseason starts are second-most on the Comets’ all-time list behind Jacob Markstrom. ... Nolan Foote was not in the lineup with an upper-body injury. He’s considered day-to-day, Dineen said. … Friday’s attendance falls short of a capacity crowd, which has been listed as 3,917 in recent seasons.
Utica Comets vs. Toronto Marlies
North Division semifinals
Game 1: Utica at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Saturday, April 29
Game 2: Utica at Toronto, 4 p.m.
Wednesday, May 3
Game 3: Toronto at Utica, 7 p.m.
Friday, May 5
x-Game 4: Toronto at Utica, 7 p.m.
Sunday, May 7
x-Game 5: Utica at Toronto, 4 p.m.
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