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Three-goal third period helps Utica Comets earn win over feisty Syracuse

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
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Posted 4/15/22

UTICA – Tyler Wotherspoon grabbed a loose puck and skated down the wing early in the third period Friday. With the Utica Comets on the penalty kill against the Syracuse Crunch, the defenseman got …

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Three-goal third period helps Utica Comets earn win over feisty Syracuse

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UTICA – Tyler Wotherspoon grabbed a loose puck and skated down the wing early in the third period Friday.

With the Utica Comets on the penalty kill against the Syracuse Crunch, the defenseman got some space and ripped a shot from the near the bottom of the left circle.

The 29-year-old veteran’s wrister sailed low blocker side on Hugo Alnefelt and in to help kickstart a three-goal third period – including an empty-netter -- to help the Comets skate to a 5-1 win over the Crunch at the Adirondack Bank Center in a feisty 14th and final regular-season meeting between the North Division rivals.

“I didn’t want to make a risky play and I thought I’d bring it down the wall. I didn’t have any pressure and saw the goalie cheat a little bit. So, I thought I’d go short side on him,” Wotherspoon said of his third goal of the season. “Obviously, it worked out.” 

Wotherspoon, who played for Team Canada in the Olympics earlier this season, also added two assists for his first three-point outing in the AHL since Nov. 22, 2019.

“Spooner is a smart player. He understands that we’ve sputtering and spittin’ around for a few weeks,” said Comets coach Kevin Dineen, who earned his 362nd career win to tie him for 10th on the AHL’s wins list. “We needed to solidify our game a little bit. He certainly stepped up. It wasn’t just on the offensive side. He was a force on the penalty kill as well.” 

It was a key effort for the Comets’ special teams, which stopped four Syracuse power-plays but was 0-for-7 on its own man advantage. 

The result helped the Comets end a season-long four-game winless streak (0-3-1-0) with six regular-season contests remaining including the penultimate regular-season home game at 7 p.m. Saturday against Belleville. The Comets have been without a couple regulars recently for various reasons. 

“I think (the win) is big for us,” Wotherspoon said. “The last couple of games we’ve been on our heels a little bit. I thought (Friday) after a nice week of practice we came out with a little more jump and it showed with the backcheck and the puck possession we played with. I think going forward that’s how we have to play.” 

Utica (40-18-7-1 overall), which has clinched a playoff spot, remains in first place in the North with a 0.667 points percentage. Laval is in second (.600 points percentage).

The result helped the Comets finish with an 11-1-2-0 against its closest geographical rival this season. It was just the fifth loss in the last 16 games for Syracuse, which is trying to lock up one of the other four North Division playoff spots.

Wotherspoon’s goal was one of three by a defenseman Friday. Nikita Okhotiuk scored his first goal since late October to give the Comets a lead – he also had a strong defensive game along with a key play in the third in clearing the puck out of the crease – and Reilly Walsh also added his first goal since mid-March. 

Forward Brian Flynn (empty-netter) and rookie Brian Halonen added goals 2:22 apart in the third to put the game out of reach. Alexander Holtz added two assists to give him 49 points. 

“It was a well-balanced (effort). We got scoring from a lot of different areas,” Dineen said. “We played harder than we have on the defensive side. So, it is good to get rewarded.”

Akira Schmid was solid in net again, totaling 25 saves to improve to 6-0-1 against the Crunch this season. He is 21-8-4 overall with a 2.49 goals-against average. 

“I think they did a good job of getting traffic on him and trying to get in his grill. I thought he showed good emotion along with a good dose of discipline as well,” Dineen said. 

The game turned more physical in the final five minutes of the second period. 

First, Okhotiuk had an awkward hit on Gabriel Dumont, which Cole Koepke didn’t like and drew fighting majors.

Shortly after Syracuse made it 2-1 with a shorthanded goal by Anthony Richard, Gabriel Fortier collided with Schmid and gave the goaltender a few extra hits while the goaltender was on the ground, drawing a penalty.

As that was getting sorted, Syracuse’s Richard came out of nowhere and began to hit Schmid in the Comets’ crease. Nolan Foote jumped in to help Schmid as the officials broke up the skirmishes. 

At least 30 minutes of penalties were handed out over the final five minutes. 

“I don’t there’s any reason (Fortier) needs to shove our goalie in the face,” Wotherspoon said. “I think they’re getting a little frustrated. We’ve played each other 14 times. Frustration is going to happen. There’s no reason to go after our goalie.” 

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