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Utica Comets continue AHL postseason push with key North Division games remaining

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
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Posted 3/22/23

The Utica Comets are in a unique position with three weeks left in the American Hockey League’s regular-season.

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Utica Comets continue AHL postseason push with key North Division games remaining


UTICA — The Utica Comets are in a unique position with three weeks left in the American Hockey League’s regular-season.

While adding some players to the group and dealing with some extended injury absences, the Comets are coming off a stretch that includes six games in nine days and a season-most five consecutive road games.

There were mixed results for the Comets, who are trying to take steps toward seizing one of the five North Division playoff spots. The team finished 3-3-0-0 during the stretch, capping it with a win and loss at Laval last weekend.

Comets coach Kevin Dineen noted the team missed an opportunity to create some separation.

“It is just OK, right? (The) .500 (record) is acceptable when you’re playing on the road,” Dineen said. “For us, I think we have the bar a little higher. We’ve got a long week here to work (on a few things) to make sure we’re tidied up for a three-game weekend.”

Utica is set for its first home games in two weeks when Syracuse visits Friday and Rochester makes the trip Saturday. Both games are set for 7 p.m. starts. Utica heads to Syracuse for a meeting Sunday at 5 p.m.

The Comets have eight home games the rest of the way, including not leaving the state for a game the next three weeks. Utica is 3-5-1-1 in the last 10 at home.

“We’re excited,” Dineen said. “Any time we get home after a road trip that seems like a long haul and a lot of cities … at the end of it, you get into your home confines and I think we always feel like this is a very welcoming place for us.”

The Comets (30-23-6-2, 66 points) remain in second place in the seven-team North Division with 11 regular-season games remaining through Saturday, April 15. Nine of the games are against rivals Syracuse and Rochester making for added importance in the playoff race.

Entering Tuesday, the Comets were two points ahead of Syracuse and four points ahead of Rochester. Syracuse and Rochester played Tuesday.

“We have a really good team,” said defenseman Zack Hayes, who has yet to play in Utica after being obtained in a trade March 10. “When we put a full 60 (minutes) together, we could probably be one of the best teams in the league.”

Dineen said they “don’t have to paint the picture, our guys know where they are in the standings.” He said this is an “enjoyable part of the schedule” for him with games getting tighter.

“Certainly it is not the Sweet 16 (in the NCAA tournament), where it is one-and-done,” he said. “But, certainly there is a little higher magnifier on every game.”

Daws remains out

There was a small positive step for Nico Daws Tuesday.

The 22-year-old second-year netminder, who is dealing with a lower-body-related injury, briefly participated in Comets’ practice and took some shots against teammates. He didn’t stay for the full practice, which also included Isaac Poulter and recently added Mike Robinson.

“There’s some encouraging signs coming. It is a big hole in our lineup when we don’t have Nico,” Dineen said. “He’s played a lot of solid hockey for us over the last year-and-a-half. Right now, we’re cautiously optimistic that he’s moving in the right direction.”

Dineen said he didn’t have a timeline for Daws. It is unclear when the New Jersey Devils prospect was injured as he played in the entirety of the Comets’ 4-1 win over Belleville on March 1. He was first out of the lineup March 3 when the Comets added Utica University coach and sometimes emergency backup Adam Dekker. Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon said then it was a “rest day” for Daws. Then, Daws was considered day-to-day. Last Wednesday, MacKinnon said the timeline changed to “closer to 10 days.” Though that could change.

The team eventually recalled Jake Theut from ECHL Adirondack, making two starts. The team has leaned on 21-year-old Isaac Poulter, who has performed admirably since Akira Schmid was called up by New Jersey in late February.

Theut and Robinson swapped spots Tuesday, the Comets announced. The 23-year-old Robinson, who is in his first full pro season, has played in three games with Adirondack and also appeared in 13 games with the Southern Professional Hockey League team Huntsville. He played at the University of New Hampshire from 2017 to 2022.

“We consider it an opportunity to take a look at a player we’re not familiar with, but I think organizationally has potential to be a real solid pro goaltender,” Dineen said. “Part of that is taking advantage of our excellent goaltending coach in Brian Eklund and let him spend time with him. Our goaltending situation will clarify itself as we move forward into the weekend.”

Roll call

Nolan Stevens (upper-body, 18 games missed) participated in a non-contact jersey Tuesday. Dineen said he’s “probably a few days away” from a return.

The team remains without Joe Gambardella (upper body) after an unpenalized high hit last Wednesday at Belleville. Dineen said there’s a hope he’ll be back “in a timely manner.”

Nick Hutchison (upper-body) and Michael Vukojevic (broken finger) remain out. Also Tuesday, the team recalled Xavier Parent from Adirondack while releasing Patrick Grasso after two games.


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