Walsh's winner helps Utica Comets clinch best regular-season record in Eastern Conference

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UTICA -- Reilly Walsh thinks he might have untintentionally broken his stick.

The Utica Comets rookie defenseman wanted to make absolutely sure the puck was in the net Friday.

Walsh – who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Thursday – had been on the ice for more than a minute in overtime when he streaked down the ice and got a slick centering feed from Joe Gambardella. 

His redirection in front appeared to be stopped by Ukko-Pekka Luukonen in front before he swiftly tapped in the puck for good measure 1:11 into overtime to help the Comets snag a 3-2 overtime win over the Rochester Americans in Utica’s final regular-season home game.

It was his fourth overall winner this season, though those games had bigger margins of victory. This was his first in overtime this season.

“I haven’t had anything remotely as cool as that (goal), to be honest,” said Walsh, who heaped praise on Gambardella and Brian Flynn during the winning goal. “I just tried to deflect and the puck sat right there. I whacked it as hard as I can. I think I actually broke my stick on the post whacking it so hard to feed it into the net there.”

He was mobbed by teammates for his ninth goal of the season about three minutes of game time after Rochester’s Sean Malone had tied the game late to force overtime. 

Days after claiming the regular-season North Division title, Friday’s result also helped push Utica (42-19-8-1) to the best record in the Eastern Conference. That will give them home-ice advantage through the conference playoffs, should they advance. 

The Comets are 2-1-0-0 in the last three games following a road trip to Cleveland earlier in the week.

“I loved our team (Friday),” said Comets coach Kevin Dineen, who wasn't sure how his team might respond after the games. “I was really happy with our guys played and how hard they played.” 

It was also an exclamation point of sorts in the regular-season for Walsh, who finished with a two-point game and has 42 points in 69 games. His points are fourth-most among rookies in Comets history in a single-season and tied for fifth-most among all AHL defensemen.

“I don’t worry about Reilly sniffing for (a goal in overtime Friday),” said Comets coach Kevin Dineen of Walsh, who is playing in his first full pro season. “He’s a dynamic kid and he’s had a solid year on the offensive side. His overall game is rounding out. He’s a very solid prospect for us.”

The Comets close the regular-season on the road next Friday at Rochester and Saturday, April 30 at Providence. Friday’s win was a solid setup for the Comets’ playoff series, Walsh said. It is welcomed for the players after playing home games during a shortened 2021 season at parent New Jersey’s practice rink in Newark. 

“We’re all really, really fired up for this playoff run. It was just a taste of it (Friday),” Walsh said. We saw some of the videos about the white-out and the crowd (from past playoffs). We couldn’t be more excited about what the fans are going to bring for us this postseason.” 

The Comets finish the regular-season 23-8-4-1 at home. The 0.708 points percentage at home is second-best at home in the Eastern Conference.

“(The fans) make a huge difference,” Walsh said. “To have the atmosphere like this makes it such an advantage and helps us with energy when we’re tired. I think they brought it ad they did all year.” Ryan Schmelzer scored shorthanded and standout Alexander Holtz scored on a needed power-play goal for his team-best 26thtally of the season and 51stpoint of the season. The team was missing at least five regulars in the lineup – including Nolan Foote officially recalled pre-game – for various reasons. 

Nico Daws – the rookie goaltender who has spent a majority of the season with the New Jersey Devils – totaled 26 saves in his first appearance in the AHL since Feb. 18. He’s 13-3-2 with a 2.39 goals-against average this season. 

“I’ve been impressed with the amount of responsibility he’s been given,” Dineen said. “He’s had a heck of a year.” 

Rookie J.J. Peterka had his 64th point of the season in the first period for Rochester (36-27-7-3), which is batting for one of the other four North Division playoff spots. 

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