Streaking Utica Comets gear up for busy stretch
UTICA — The Utica Comets will take their five-game point streak into a stretch of six games in nine days starting at home Friday against North Division foe Belleville.
“I feel good,” said Comets’ head coach Kevin Dineen after practice Wednesday morning. “I think we’re getting healthy. I think our team is understanding the way we have to play. We’ve had good success this year against…Belleville.” The Syracuse Crunch, the team Utica beat Sunday afternoon, “have had our number a little bit this year.” But the Comets get a break from their I-90 rival until March 24.
The team is in the midst of four days without a game, a rare stretch late in the season. “Enjoyed a long week here before we have really the toughest stretch of our schedule,” Dineen said. That nine-day span starts with three games in three days — Friday at 7 p.m. at home then on the road at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Saturday and Sunday at Lehigh Valley. “A lot of action in a short period of time.”
Dineen added, “We’ve looked at this early in the year. And now it’s here and I think we’re ready to go.”
The run of games starts with the Senators, who sit at the bottom of the seven-team North Division, nine points behind second-place Utica. Saturday the Comets take on the Penguins, who are in the last in the Atlantic Division. Lehigh Valley is in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic with a record of 28-22-3-3. Utica is 27-20-6-2 so the two teams have similar records.
“I like the way we’re playing,” Dineen said. The team has been working on areas that are “difference makers” that don’t necessarily equate to goal scoring. Such components of the team’s game will be important not just now but a month from now and in the playoffs, he said.
During the team’s streak that has earned the Comets nine out of a possible 10 points in the standings (four wins and an overtime loss), the lineup has shifted due to injuries, call-ups and a deadline trade.
Dineen said he liked the energy and “youthful enthusiasm” of the players who have contributed of late. Though he was sent back to the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder after Sunday’s game, Xavier Parent scored his first AHL goal in that game to help the team to a 6-4 comeback win. Timur Ibragimov has a goal and an assist in three games since arriving as part of a blockbuster trade by the New Jersey Devils, the Comets’ NHL parent club. Dineen said new players “want to make an impression. You want to leave a footprint.”
And that includes goalie Isaac Poulter, who has been the team’s starter the last two games as Nico Daws is not yet healthy enough to return to the lineup. He is 1-0-1-0 in those games. In six games this season, he’s 2-1-3-0 with a goals-against-average of 3.91 and an .877 save percentage.
“Isaac has come in and he’s really stabilized our goaltending situation,” Dineen said. The team’s goaltending has been in flux all season due to injuries in New Jersey and in Utica. Akira Schmid is with the Devils right now though he has played in 20 games for Utica. So Poulter has an opportunity in Utica. “He looks composed out there,” Dineen said. “He’s played a really good set of hockey games for us in the last little stretch.”
The team’s leading scorer, Graeme Clarke, was back at practice Wednesday. He’d been called up by the Devils and thus missed three Comets games.
The team will likely get at least one player back from injury this weekend, Dineen added. Right wing Brian Pinho, who last played Feb. 10, practiced Wednesday and is likely to be back in the lineup. Dineen added that center Nolan Stevens, out since Feb. 1, will have a status update Thursday based on more tests. He participated in Wednesday’s practice in a no-contact jersey.
Defenseman Jeremy Groleau, who left Sunday’s win with a knee injury and did not return to the game, will be out for “a stretch,” Dineen said. Center Nick Hutchison, out since Feb. 22, will remain out for the foreseeable future, the coach added.
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