Utica Comets' season ends with Game 4 loss to top-seed Toronto
UTICA — The North Division semifinals could be considered a microcosm of the Utica Comets’ season.
Similar to the regular-season, there were ups and downs for the Comets in the Calder Cup playoff series against the division’s top seeded Toronto Marlies.
After a strong first-round playoff series and evening the series against Toronto, Utica’s missed opportunities and consistency issues showed up at a suboptimal time.
Despite another tremendous effort from 22-year-old netminder Nico Daws, the season ended on one of those down moments for the Comets.
The talented Marlies used a relentless three-goal second period en route to sending the fourth-seeded Comets to a 4-1 loss in a deciding Game 4 on Friday at the Adirondack Bank Center.
Toronto claims the series 3-1 and advances to face the winner of Rochester-Syracuse.
It is the fourth time in as many playoff appearances that a Utica AHL team has been eliminated in the North Division semifinals following losses to Rochester (2022), Toronto (2018) and then-Albany (2016). There were no playoffs in 2020 or 2021. Utica missed the playoffs in 2017 and 2019.
While there’s disappointment of not getting a chance to play another day in May, those of the 3,767 Comets fans in attendance that remained until after the final horn made sure to show their appreciation for a team that clawed its way into the playoffs.
“The entire season they were the backbone,” said 29-year-old Comets alternate captain Joe Gambardella, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason with the expiration of his two-year NHL deal with the parent New Jersey Devils. “They have your back night-in and night-out whether things are going great or not. They’re a real fun crowd to play in front of. Probably the best I’ve seen and had the privilege of playing in front of.”
Comets coach Kevin Dineen said the team "didn't take advantage of home-ice with the enthusiasm that we have in the building."
There was hope that this season might serve as some type of redemption after last season’s record-breaking team got eliminated by Rochester earlier than anticipated.
“I’m proud of that group in (the locker room). It has been a fun year for us,” Gambardella said. “There was no quit in our game. It sucks that summer is here now.”
With Friday’s loss, the Comets are now 6-5 all-time in postseason elimination games dating back to 2015.
Dineen “didn’t feel like there was enough sense of urgency” Friday from the team. He said the team played a "50/50 game and didn't apply enough pressure."
“Certainly, they understood our situation that you get yourself (here), that there's going to be nothing left. I don't think there was a lack of effort,” said Dineen, who is finishing his second of a three-year contract. I think there was details to our game that crept in during the course of the year and crept in (Friday) with decision-making and little details. Our expectations are there's a level of predictability that isn't there that ended up costing the game.”
Both Gambardella and Dineen praised the play of Daws, the team’s midseason All-Star selection. He totaled 33 saves in his eighth consecutive postseason start dating back to last season. He made arguably one of his biggest saves of the season with 10:44 to go, spinning and diving to make a stick save with the Marlies hovering around the crease on his right side.
“He worked hard. He played with a determination of what our expectations for him,” Dineen said. “I was happy that Nico came off some health issues (toward the end of the regular-season) and really rallied the last month and played some solid hockey for us.”
Erik Källgren made an impact for Toronto in turning the series around. After Utica totaled 12 goals in Games 1 and 2 against Keith Petruzzelli, Källgren totaled 52 saves on 55 shots in Game 3 and Friday to limit Utica.
Forward Xavier Parent, a late-season recall from ECHL Adirondack, scored in the first period for Utica.
Utica finished with 29 shots with help from a decent third-period push when Toronto appeared to go into a defensive shell.
“We still did our job. We threw pucks on net. He looked poised,” Gambardella said. “I thought we had some really good chances to execute and bear down and finish. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way. He made a few more saves. Credit to him. I thought we threw a lot at him.”
Utica’s power-play didn’t help, going 2-for-15 in the series and 2-for-19 in six postseason games. Utica had a strong advantage in the second already trailing and had attempts by Alex Holtz, Graeme Clarke and Reilly Walsh stopped.
The opportunistic Marlies seized control in a dominant second, outshooting the Comets 23-9.
Seconds after killing off a Toronto advantage, Toronto’s Carl Dahlstrom’s shot from the top of the right circle snuck through traffic to tie the game about five minutes into the period. Toronto was outshooting Utica 13-2 at that point.
The Marlies added two goals less than a minute apart after the Comets hit a post. Matteo Pietroniro got time in the slot for a 2-1 lead with 9:29 to go. Then, Logan Shaw got behind the defense, scoring from the edge of the right circle with three Comets players near with 8:50 to go.
“I think there was recognition of what was happening,” Dineen said. “It is how you react to it. I think we needed to do a better job of reacting.”
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