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Utica Comets hope to carry momentum into AHL North Division playoff series with Toronto Marlies

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
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Posted 4/26/23

The Utica Comets begin their best-of-five North Division semifinals series Thursday against the Toronto Marlies.

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Utica Comets hope to carry momentum into AHL North Division playoff series with Toronto Marlies


UTICA — One goal for the Utica Comets in a new round of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs: Win north of the border — again.

If the Comets want to get past the Toronto Marlies, Utica will need solid play on the road, similar to their effort as part of a sweep of Laval in the North Division first round.

“I think our momentum is huge,” said Comets defenseman Reilly Walsh, who has a five-game point-streak dating back to the regular-season. “We’re playing the right way and we have momentum. We’ve had some days to rest and to practice. We’re still fresh off the (last) series. ...(Toronto) has had almost two weeks off. We know how that feels from last year (with a bye against Rochester). It is using that experience (this year).”

The fourth-seeded Comets will play in the North Division semifinals against the top-seeded Marlies. Game 1 of the best-of-five series is 7 p.m. Thursday in Toronto and Game 2 is 4 p.m. Saturday, also in Toronto. It means Utica will need at least one win in Toronto — a deciding Game 5, if necessary, would also be in Ontario — in order to advance.

Utica was 1-4-1-0 against Toronto this season. The three games in Toronto were decided by two or fewer goals.

“We feel like we’ve been comfortable on the road all year long,” said Comets coach Kevin Dineen, who is in the AHL’s standard postseason for the seventh time after guiding Portland from 2005-11 and led San Diego in an altered Pacific Division postseason format in 2021. “We feel like the game in Laval was a good template for how we have to play. We’ve got good leadership. It starts there. They understand how we have to play. I think we all understand as well that we’re going up against a heckuva opponent here. We have to be ready for adversity, you have to have some consistency to your game. And we let the chips fall. I like the way we’re going into the series.”

Toronto struggled of late with a 2-8-2-1 mark over the final month.

Good start

Utica quieted a Laval crowd of more than 10,000 with a solid start in Game 1. While the crowd won’t be as big in Toronto, the team knows a strong start matters.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest point we’ve been talking about: that first period, first couple shifts, first five minutes,” Walsh said. “It is really just ... making them know it is going to be a long series for them.”

Utica was 17-16-3-0 on the road this season, among the lower-half of the 32-team league.

Dineen believes Toronto will “expect us to come out with a strong effort.”

“I think that’s always a form of flattery when they know what you’re going to bring and you feel like it is going to be effective,” said Dineen, who expects a different Toronto effort compared to Utica’s 5-0 win April 7 in Utica. “We’ll make adjustments as we go. We feel like if we play the way we’re capable of and the way we’ve established over the last two weeks that a lot of good things will follow.”


Nico Daws is expected to continue to carry the goaltending duties.

Daws stopped 58 out of 59 shots against Laval giving him a 0.50 GAA with a .983 save percentage. 

“You look at Dawsy right now, he’s playing the best he’s played,” Walsh said.

For the Marlies, Keith Petruzzelli and Dennis Hildeby are the goalies. Petruzzelli had a 2.90 goals against average with a .909 save percentage in the regular-season.

Neither goalie has played in the AHL postseason. Standout Joseph Woll is on recall.

Special teams

Utica will need solid play from its special teams, which was near the bottom of the AHL in both power play (31st, 15.8%) and penalty kill (27th, 77.4%)

Toronto had the second-best power-play this season at 23.6%. while their penalty kill was 13th at 81.5%.

Utica didn’t allow a power-play goal against Laval and didn’t score on the power-play in the four opportunities.


Utica turned in two of its best defensive games against Laval. The team blocked shots and clogged lanes, limiting good chances for the high-scoring Rocket.

Allowing one goal against Laval was key, Dineen said. The group is led by veterans in Robbie Russo and Tyler Wotherspoon and includes Walsh and Simon Nemec. 

Toronto averaged 3.18 goals and the team is led by Logan Shaw (21 goals-48 assists in 69 games) and Alex Steeves (19-32-51 points).

“Defense is what wins championships,” Walsh said. “I think for our team when we play our stingy style of defense, that leads to teams taking chances and us getting chances offensively. I think we’re playing the right brand. We just have to keep going.”

Stepping up offensively

Team MVP Graeme Clarke had a team-best 25 goals and 33 assists in the regular-season, though Utica got offense in the first round from Walsh and Ryan Schmelzer — who each had two goals against Laval — and a thrilling winner from Samuel Laberge.

Thirteen players had at least a point vs. Laval.

“(Last year) we didn’t really learn how to play a ton of tight games down the stretch, since we won a lot of games. Because we were so dynamic, we let our skill take over,” Walsh said “This time we really have to work and grind our way to get wins, and I think that’s prepared us for the playoff style of hockey.”


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