Daws stellar in return, helps Utica Comets earn point vs. Rochester
UTICA – Nico Daws hadn’t played a game over the last 24 days.
Whatever the lower-body issue is that the second-year Utica Comets netminder was dealing with since his last start March 1, it didn’t seem to be an issue Saturday.
Both Daws and his Rochester Americans counterpart Michael Houser turned in a goalie dual for their respective teams with each not allowing a goal through 65 minutes of game time Saturday in the first of four meetings over the next three weeks between the North Division rivals.
Linus Weissbach ended the stalemate in the fourth round of a shootout slipping the puck in to help Rochester nab a 1-0 victory over the Comets in a playoff-like atmosphere at the Adirondack Bank Center.
Daws was stellar, though, in his return for the Comets while turning aside 35 shots through 65 minutes.
“It feels really good just to be back (Saturday) with the boys,” said Daws, who said he didn’t think he could reveal what specifically kept him out of the lineup. “We’re in a strong push in the season and all points matter. It is definitely nice to be in a battle.”
Utica had four of its players stopped in the shootout by Michael Houser, who earned his first AHL shutout since March 27, 2015. He stopped 21 shots through regulation and overtime for his fourth career AHL shutout.
It is believed to be the first time in 10 seasons that the Comets have had a contest finish with a 1-0 shootout result – win or loss – in the team’s 680 regular-season games.
With nine regular-season games remaining, it is a valuable point as the Comets (31-23-6-3 overall) move closer to a postseason berth in their second season as the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, which cliched their own playoff spot Saturday for the time since 2017-18.
Combined with Syracuse’s loss in regulation Saturday against Hershey, second-place Utica (71 points) is three points ahead of Syracuse heading into re-match at 5 p.m. Sunday. Rochester (30-25-4-3) is lurking in fourth with 67 points. Both teams have played one fewer game. Cleveland (63), Belleville (62) and Laval (60) are battling for the fifth and final North playoff spot.
Daws, the Comets’ All-Star representative in February who has had some ups and downs this season, has allowed three total goals in his last three starts dating back to Feb. 24. He’s 14-12-3 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .905 save percentage this season.
Saturday’s result goes down as Daws’ first shutout of the season with the Comets. He also had a shutout as a rookie with Utica.
“Jeez, he was good (Saturday),” Comets coach Kevin Dineen said. “I was really happy with the way he played and his overall tempo. I just felt like he felt really big and comfortable. It looked like our guys were a little sheepish with some of the stretches we gave up there. You get that kind of goaltending and it is going to make a huge difference for your hockey team.”
Daws, who missed time in Dec. 2021 and Jan. 2022 with a hamstring injury, seemed to be dialed in from the beginning Saturday even though he didn’t face his first shot until about eight minutes in.
“I think the first period, I was a little rusty, but that’s to be expected,” Daws said. “I think I figured it out pretty quickly. I think I felt better than I expected.”
Daws stopped 14 shots alone in the second period when Rochester seized momentum.
He made arguably one of his biggest stops of the game in the second period after Matej Pekar got a breakaway after a Comets’ defenseman fell down. However, Daws stuck his pad out to on Pekar’s forehand-backhand attempt for a sprawling stop with 8:19 left in the period.
“We didn’t like our second period. I don’t think the players liked it, the coaches certainly didn’t like it and I don’t think Dawsy liked it,” Dineen said. “That stuck in our craw a little bit after having a strong second period (in Friday’s 4-3 win over Syracuse) and we felt like that was an Achilles heel for us. I felt like we addressed it and there was a little punch in our step in the third period.”
Dineen said the team needs some “run support” on the offensive side.
Utica got the returns of Joe Gambardella (missed last three games with upper-body injury) and Nolan Stevens (missed last 19, upper body) on Saturday. However, surging forward Brian Halonen missed Saturday’s game with “a non-hockey-related health issue” that will keep him out for an undisclosed stretch, Dineen said.
He had a couple stops in overtime when Rochester – which has gone to a shootout in four of the last five games – controlled play early. Daws, who said he enjoys the one-one-nature of shootouts, stopped Mason Jobst, Jiri Kulich and Jeremy Davies before Weissbach scored.
Utica had some of its best chances in the third period – Stevens had a short breakaway stopped with about 12 minutes remaining – and leading scorer Graeme Clarke with 3 minutes left in overtime.
“I think that if people were looking at it from an outside point of view that a hockey purist would enjoy,” Dineen said. There was some good quality plays at both ends, some great goaltending.”
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