Heading into the fixtures on Sunday, December 21, 2014 the Utica Comets lead the Western Conference and the entire AHL.
A total of 19 wins and just five regulations losses in 29 outings, see’s them at the peak of the standings and some are surprised by this team’s “miraculous” rise after a very tricky inaugural season.
It took the Comets six games to register their first point in 2013/14, which came via a SO loss at home to Syracuse. It wasn’t until the eleventh game of the season that their first victory came on the road in Lake Erie and they followed it up with another win in Hamilton.
The Comets home fans would have to be patient, very patient. It took their team nine game to register a home victory which finally arrived on November 23.
What most people who are surprised at Utica’s rise this season don’t realise, is that the team who began last year with a 0-8-1-1 record began to recover from this poor start, playing slightly above .500 hockey before starting to take-off come mid January.
Ironically it was a poor beginning to the new year which kick-started their season. Utica began January with one win from seven games but finished the month going 5-0-0-1.
February saw some up and downs but still maintain the status quo as the Comets went 6-6-1 but a blitz in March (7-3-1) including a four game win streak, saw the team finally achieve a record standing at .500 for the first time.
Gaining a playoff spot was still remarkably an attainable goal at this point and they certainly gave it their all but 5-3-1 in April wasn’t quite enough as they missed out on eighth spot by a mere four points.
Finishing 2013/14 with a winning record of 35-32-5-4, 3rd in the North and 10th in the West was a tremendous performance after the early problems and a springboard to this season for Travis Green and his troops.
Losing their talisman and leading scorer in the shape of Pascal Pelletier hasn’t harmed the team as Vancouver signed Dustin Jeffrey from Dallas to fill the void.
Unlike last year, it’s been scoring by committee this season as Utica does not currently possess a player in the top 40 league goalscorers but twenty-one on the roster have all chipped in with a goal at different times.
The aforementioned Jeffrey has seven markers as does Alexandre Grenier, who is having another solid season. Right wingers DeFazio and Jensen have nine and eight goals respectively but it’s on the blue line where valuable scoring has come from in the shape of defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti.
A proven player at this level, Sanguinetti returned to North America after just spending just one season with KHL side Atlant Moscow Oblast. In 2011/12, he recorded 50 points in 60 games for Charlotte and although not at that pace, his 17 points have been invaluable as they include eight goals of which three were game winners in victories decided by a solitary marker.
Centreman Cal O’Reilly should also not been forgotten. The skilled set-up man recorded 38 assists last year for Utica and he’s already at 24 helpers this season, third best in the AHL.
It’s at the other end of ice though where Utica has impressed their supremacy over the rest of the AHL. They own the meanest defense in the league, allowing just 62 goals at an average of 2.13 per game. Between the pipes are two Swedish goaltenders sharing the load and both with something to prove.
Joacim Eriksson is in his second season as a professional in North America and wants to establish himself in the Vancouver organisation. He’s made a very good start to achieving that goal with an 11-3-0 record, 2.28GAA and 0.918sv%.
Jacob Markstrom needs no introduction and he’s taken the trade and drop down to the AHL with good grace and a ton of determination. Almost unbeatable at times so far this season, his 8-1 record includes four shutouts, a goals against average under 1.7 and 0.938sv%.
Utica’s special teams have also shone, with unsurprisingly their penalty kill a league second best at 87.5% and three shorthanded goals to boot.
I’ve read the accusation thrown at this Utica team, that they are excelling due to an experienced roster.
Actually that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sixteen of the current roster have a birth year in the 90’s and some of Vancouver’s young exciting rookies have also spent time with Utica, including Bo Harvat.
It’s still early days but the best team in the AHL during the last regular season went on to lift the Calder Cup. It’d be some story if Utica were able to achieve that after the trials of their inaugural year.