Utica Comets aim to take down Laval Rocket in AHL playoffs
UTICA — Graeme Clarke put it succinctly with the Utica Comets back in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs.
“We’re not satisfied,” said Clarke, whose 58 points ended as fifth-most in a Comets’ season. “We’re going to come out guns blazing.”
The Comets are set for a best-of-three series against the Laval Rocket, which begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Laval, Quebec. Game 2 is Friday in Utica as is a possible Game 3 on Saturday.
This postseason is partially about trying to erase the sting of last spring, which ended in a disappointing division semifinal loss to Rochester. There was an added bad taste because Utica finished the 2021-22 regular season as the top Eastern Conference team.
“You always learn from the past,” Comets coach Kevin Dineen said. “For us, we have some new faces around here (from last year) and have some quality veteran leadership. We’ll also reach back and rely some on past experiences whether it is over the course of the year or the playoffs last year. So, we have a tight window and I think you pick up everything you feel is important to your team and move forward.”
While there were no playoffs in 2020 and 2021, Utica is searching for a postseason series win for the first time since 2015 when the team was Vancouver’s affiliate.
This Comets squad had plenty of learning experiences over an up-and-down last month of the regular season. Utica sat as high as second place in the North Division before finishing fourth.
Clarke, the 21-year-old winger, is looking to continue a breakout season after totaling a team-best 25 goals and 33 assists. The New Jersey Devils prospect was named Most Valuable Player by Utica staff.
“I think there are a lot of good players on the team. Coming into the year I wasn’t the best player on the team. I thought I was kind of able to improve throughout the year and take a bigger step. For me, that’s kind of all it was. I was happy about that,” Clarke said. “There’s so many good guys that helped me, too. I can’t just say it was all myself. It was the coaches, the teammates and the linemates I played with. It was all credit to them. I’m happy with how the year went. I’m excited to keep it going.”
Postseason play will offer another opportunity to make an impression and earn valuable experience. Clarke is among 15 players back from last season’s postseason experience.
“Of course it is going to be a bit of a different game,” Clarke said. “But at the same time you don’t want to change your game too much because we’ve had success the last couple games and we want to keep playing that way. Playoff hockey is definitely different. It is tighter and there’s less available out there.”
Here’s a few things to know:
Utica struggled on the power play this season, finishing 31st out of 32 teams at 15.8%.
It was worse against Laval with an 8.3% mark.
However, Utica has been without a consistent threat compared to last season.
The return of Alex Holtz, who is expected to be an option Wednesday after an extended absence, could help. Brian Halonen, who tied with Reilly Walsh for five power-play goals, could also be beneficial after a health-related absence.
Both teams’ penalty kills have struggled: Laval ranked 31st (75.6%) and Utica was 27th (77.4%).
Laval’s power-play could be a factor after operating at 26.3% vs. Utica this season. Laval finished the regular-season sixth at 22.5%.
The Comets have struggled at times with consistency. The team acknowledged over the last month that puck management needed to improve.
That will be especially true for a short series against Laval, which is a dynamic team, Dineen said. Utica was 1-3-2-0 vs. Laval with three games decided by a goal.
“Every little detail matters,” Clarke said. “Laval, they’re a fast team. They’re almost similar to that Rochester team (last season). They’re going to come at you in waves and are really fast. It is about managing the puck.”
Nico Daws will likely carry the goaltending duties for Utica. He’ll be backed up by Isaac Poulter with Akira Schmid up with New Jersey.
Daws, the 22-year-old netminder, is 5-2-1 overall over his last eight starts. He’s looking to improve on a 3.01 goals-against average in four Calder Cup games last season.
Dineen noted the defense will also need to play within its structure against Laval, which averaged 3.58 goals in the regular-season.
“We’ve seen the last two seasons that (Daws) can carry the load,” Clarke said. “I think we’re all set there and confident in that.”
Cayden Primeau (2.01 GAA/.935 save percentage in three starts vs. Utica) is expected to be the Laval starter.
Utica Comets vs. Laval Rocket
North Division First Round
Game 1: Utica at Laval, 7 p.m.
A Watch Party for the game is planned for 72 Tavern and Grill, which is attached to the Adirondack Bank Center at Utica Memorial Auditorium. Reservations can be made at 72tavernandgrill.com/resy, the team said.
Broadcast: KROCK 94.9FM or krock.com (free); AHLTV, watchtheahl.com (subscription video).
Game 2: Laval at Utica, 7 p.m.
Similar to past seasons, the Comets said fans should wear white clothing.
The team will also be giving each fan in attendance a red rally towel.
x-Game 3: Laval at Utica, 7 p.m.
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