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Utica Comets claim quirky win over WBS Penguins in makeup home opener

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
email / twitter
Posted 1/24/23

Ninety-nine days later, the Utica Comets didn’t have any problem against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

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Utica Comets claim quirky win over WBS Penguins in makeup home opener

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UTICA — Ninety-nine days later, the Utica Comets didn’t have any problem against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The wildly unique and certainly odd circumstances that led to the American Hockey League teams hitting ice Tuesday are well-known: The previous meeting between the teams Oct. 17 — then Utica's home opener — was suspended because of a power outage in Utica’s downtown arena. The remainder of the contest – 22 minutes and 43 seconds of game time – was pushed to this January day. 

To add to the surreal and unique nature of the contest, which started with 2:43 remaining in the second period and the Comets holding a one-goal lead, Utica began on two-minute penalty kill. 

No problem for the Comets, who upped the quirkiness of the whole affair by having Nico Daws and Akira Schmid appear in the game, albeit on different days. 

The Comets quickly grabbed momentum by killing the penalty and defenseman Robbie Russo scored with 0.9 seconds remaining in the second period en route to breaking open a tight game for a 5-1 victory in the completion of the suspended contest in just over 40 minutes of real time. 

The whole thing ended before 8 p.m. While an official number wasn’t announced Tuesday, it appeared there were about 1,000 people in the building for the short contest, which is one of three AHL games this season that has been postponed because of extenuating circumstances. 

“We’re pleased with the way our guys prepared,” said Comets coach Kevin Dineen, who hadn’t experienced anything like Tuesday’s contest during his long coaching career or playing days. “At the end of it, we feel good about ourselves. It is a little snack before (Wednesday’s game).”

It is part of a stretch in which Utica has four games over five days this week. 
 
Daws started the game in Oct. 17 and totaled 19 saves on 20 shots. Dineen said Daws went home in recent days for a family matter and didn’t think it was fair for him to play after the second-year netminder traveled back to Utica. 
 
And while Schmid stopped all 10 shots he faced in the 22:34 he played Tuesday, the win is credited to Daws. With it, Daws became the sixth Comets goaltender to reach 25 career wins. 
 
More quirkiness: Daws was named the first star of the game Tuesday and Schmid earned the second. 

Schmid – who started the last previous two games against Syracuse last week – said Tuesday’s affair felt like a normal game because it was a 7 p.m. start. 

“But, you start on the (penalty kill) and that’s new for everyone,” said Schmid, whose 30 career wins are fifth-most for the Comets. “You don’t really have any way to ease into the game. You just go.” 

He got acclimated quickly, though, stopping a prime chance by Drake Caggiula on a shot from the slot less a minute after the game restarted. 

“Once you get the first stop – no matter if it is a normal game – you start calming yourself down a little bit,” said Schmid, who impressed earlier this season during a stint with the parent New Jersey Devils. “It helps to get that one out of the way.” 

WBS made seven lineup changes from Oct. 17 to Tuesday, including swapping goaltenders Filip Lindberg (12 saves on Oct. 17) for Dustin Tokarski (six saves on eight shots).

Russo gave Utica breathing room by beating the clock in that second period. Joe Gambardella chased down a loose puck in the Penguins zone and quickly flipped it to Graeme Clarke, who found an open Russo for his third goal of the season. 

“That was a very big goal. Because then you’re basically looking at a quote-unquote game where … you continue to work on different areas of your game,” Dineen said. “You’re managing the game when you have a lead and not being conservative. Having a high level of responsibility along with the pressure, we liked our play.” 

Nolan Foote – who didn’t play Tuesday because of an upper-body injury and is considered day-to-day, according to Dineen – and Nick Hutchison each scored in the first period played in October. 

The third period didn’t have many whistles – “I knew we were in for a quick one then," Dineen said – and Utica put the game away when Nolan Stevens walked in an empty-netter for his 12th goal of the season. The Comets added another one 17 seconds later with help from a fortuitous bounce off the boards following a shot by Michael Vukojevic that Jack Dugan tapped in from the right side of the crease.
 
Entering Wednesday's game against Charlotte, Utica (21-12-5-1) remained in second place in the seven-team North Division with 48 points. Besides division-leading Toronto, the other five teams in the division were idle Tuesday. Utica was six points ahead of third-place Syracuse, but has played two more games. 

Utica also plays at 7 p.m. Wednesday when Charlotte visits for the first time this season. The game is the first of two games in which Utica will wear special jerseys for its annual Save of the Day Foundation games. 

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