Utica Comets finish three-game weekend .500
The Utica Comets took half of the possible points they could earn against rivals Syracuse and Rochester during a three-game weekend.
By earning three out of a possible six points — a .500 points percentage — the Utica Comets missed an opportunity to create separation in the North Division.
Utica notched a 4-3 regulation home win over Syracuse on Friday. Then, got a stellar performance from goaltender Nico Daws in a return from a three-week injury absence in a 1-0 shootout loss Saturday against visiting Rochester. Utica had a lopsided 6-1 setback Sunday at Syracuse.
Utica (31-24-6-3 overall) has a slim hold on second place in the North Division with eight regular-season games remaining as the Comets try to find some consistency.
Utica has 71 points, ahead of Syracuse (70) and Rochester (69), which have both played one fewer game. Utica plays Rochester again Friday and Saturday before a home meeting Sunday against Syracuse.
Cleveland (63) is battling for the fifth and final North spot with Belleville (62) and Laval (62). Division-leading Toronto (85) has clinched a playoff spot.
Utica’s Magic Number to clinch a playoff spot is eight. That number will diminish with each point Utica earns, as well as every point lost by the North Division team with the second-lowest maximum point total.
Up and down vs. Syracuse
On Friday, Brian Pinho helped contribute to two second-period goals to help Utica.
He had a nifty entry pass to Timur Ibragimov halfway through the period to get Ibragimov behind the defense. He finished with a snap shot for his third goal since coming to Utica as part of New Jersey’s mammoth trade for Timo Meier.
Then, Pinho got a piece of a point shot by Reilly Walsh with 1:09 left in the middle frame.
Despite missing extended time with an upper-body injury, Pinho became the sixth Comets player to reach 10 goals.
Tyler Wotherspoon added another goal to give Utica a 4-1 lead before Syracuse made things interesting with two third period goals.
“This is a very important time of year,” Pinho said Friday. “They’re a great team. We always have to battle against them. We’re ready for it. We’re excited. We’re ready for this stretch at the end. We just hope to be playing our best hockey.”
They didn’t seem to have it Sunday when Syracuse scored three times in the first period and added two more goals in the second to chase Isaac Poulter (21 saves), giving Mike Robinson (11 saves on 12 shots) in his AHL debut.
The Comets played without Daws, Alex Holtz and Nolan Stevens. It is unclear why all three were out, but Comets broadcaster/director of communications Jason Shaya said during the broadcast the team is “trying to make sure players are rested and healthy.”
Reilly Walsh had a power-play goal in the second period to reach 78 career points with Utica and surpassed Jordan Subban for most points by a Comets defenseman in team history.
Graeme Clarke added an assist, making him the first Comets player to reach 50 points this season.
Whatever the lower-body issue is that Daws was dealing with, it didn’t seem to be an issue Saturday.
Both Daws and Rochester counterpart Michael Houser turned in an outstanding goalie duel with each not allowing a goal through 65 minutes of game time.
Linus Weissbach scored in the fourth shootout round, slipping the puck in to help Rochester in a game that had a playoff-like feel.
Daws was stellar in his return making 35 saves.
“It feels really good just to be back with the boys,” said Daws, who said he didn’t think he could reveal what specifically kept him out. “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 Houser, who earned his first AHL shutout since March 27, 2015. He stopped 21 shots.
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.
“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,” Comets coach Kevin Dineen said Saturday. “That stuck in our craw a little bit after having a strong second period (Friday) and we felt like that was an Achilles heel for us.”
Schmid is back with Utica after New Jersey secured a playoff spot for the first time since the 2017-18 season Saturday. Mackenzie Blackwood also returned from an injury.
Asked following Saturday’s result if Utica would continue to have three goalies with Daws’ return, Dineen said there had been “discussions” about the position and it seemed Schmid would return.
“(Goaltending is) one area where we’ve been comfortable whether it is Poults (Poulter), or Nico or Akira,” he said.
The move involving Schmid is not overly surprising given that NHL teams typically don’t carry three healthy goaltenders — New Jersey also has Vitek Vanecek — and Schmid was the lone goalie of the group to be made eligible for the rest of the American Hockey League’s regular-season and playoffs at the deadline March 3.
Schmid has impressed in the NHL this season. In 17 games, the 22-year-old Swiss goalie tops New Jersey in save percentage (.918) and goals against (2.24). He earned his first NHL shutout Feb. 25.
He could possibly get called up — along with others from the Comets — as part of a Black Aces group during the NHL playoffs.
Schmid has been a standout with Utica this season. In 20 games, he has team-bests with a 2.53 goals-against average — tied for 11th best in the AHL — and a .908 save percentage. He has a 10-6-3 record.
With Schmid back, Robinson was released from his tryout contract, the team announced Monday.
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