Utica Comets edge Cleveland, rule as kings of the North Division
The Utica Comets are the American Hockey League’s North Division champions.
The Comets needed to rally Wednesday to rule the North.
The Comets scored three times in the third period – including Alexander Holtz’s highlight-worthy effort that became the eventual game-winner – to earn a 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Monsters on Wednesday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to close a two-game series between the teams.
The win with three regular-season games remaining guarantees the Comets – who have been in first place throughout the regular-season with help from a red-hot start – will have home-ice advantage through the two North Division rounds.
As Kings of the North, Utica (41-19-8-1 overall) will face the winner of the “play-in round” between the teams that finish in fourth and fifth place in the division. The team’s opponent will likely not be decided for a few more games as it is a battle among five other teams -- Laval, Belleville, Syracuse, Rochester and Toronto -- for the remaining spots. The regular-season ends April 30.
The Comets are at the top of the Eastern Conference with a 0.659 points percentage.
It is also Utica’s first division crown since 2014-15 when the Comets were the AHL affiliate of Vancouver. It is also the first division title for a New Jersey Devils’ affiliate since 1997-98, according to the AHL.
There was another milestone: The victory was Comets coach Kevin Dineen’s 363rd career victory in the AHL. That puts Dineen in sole possession of 10th place on the AHL career wins list.
The Comets took three out of four possible points against Cleveland in the week day series after falling in overtime Tuesday. The team has had some recent struggles with Wednesday’s win pushing Utica to 3-5-2 in the last 10 games.
Jarrod Gourley – on a blast from the left circle in his AHL debut – and Chase De Leo – with his team-best 53rd point of the season – scored 1:19 apart early in the third to help Utica, which trailed 2-1 after 40 minutes.
The Comets – who had some lineup changes with some regulars out – had to kill off a 5-on-3 penalty soon after to help maintain the lead.
Holtz helped give the Comets extra cushion on an impressive effort. Aarne Talvitie – who had a first-period goal and two assists for his first career multi-point game – passed to Holtz in front of the net. Holtz, the skilled Devils’ forward prospect, put the puck between his legs and flipped the puck past a kneeling Cam Johnson (28 saves) with 6:27 to go.
It was Holtz’s 25th goal of the season, which is tied for second-most among AHL rookies. He also became the fourth Comets player to reach 50 points this season.
Cleveland’s Thomas Schemitsch scored about two minutes later to make it 4-3, but Akira Schmid (28 saves) and the Comets held them off the rest of the way. It was Schmid’s team-best 21st win of the season.
A total of nine players finished with a point. Forward Graeme Clarke had two assists.
The Comets play their final regular-season home game at 7 p.m. Friday against Rochester. The teams are also scheduled meet next Friday in Rochester for the Comets' penultimate regular-season game.
Greer, Daws return; Okhotiuk up
On Wednesday morning, the Devils officially confirmed forward A.J. Greer was assigned to the Comets.
That's a boost considering Greer is having a career season with Utica. He has 22 goals and 28 assists and is one of four players to reach 50 points this season with Utica. He played in Wednesday's game, but was held without a point.
Later in the day, the Devils announced goaltender Nico Daws has been assigned to the Comets. The 21-year-old goaltender has been on recall since mid-February.
Daws, who has played 22 of New Jersey's last 27 contests, has a 2.41 goals-against average and a 0.918 save percentage with a 12-3-2 record with Utica. The goal is to have him play a few games before the AHL playoffs.
The team also said defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk has been recalled. It is well-deserved for the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Okhotiuk plays a physical and gritty game in his second North American pro season.
The Comets also acknowledged that forward Patrick Grasso joined the team from ECHL Adirondack. He had an assist Wednesday.
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