UTICA COMETS @ TORONTO MARLIES
4:00 PM EDT/ 1:00 PDT
Ricoh Center, Toronto, ON
After missing the playoffs last year, the Utica Comets are back in the quest for the Calder Cup, but they have a monumental task ahead of them as they will be facing one of the AHL’s best in the first round: the Toronto Marlies.
The Comets have just 5 players on the roster that played the last time they made the post-season (Richard Bachman, Cole Cassels, Joseph LaBate, Carter Bancks, and Ashton Sautner) and only Bancks and Wacey Hamilton remain from the squad that went to the Finals in 2015.
The Marlies took 5 of the 8 meetings between these teams this season, with the Comets winning 3 of the last 5. They were outscored 24 to 22 in those 8 games, so when you scratch the surface this matchup is a little closer than the standings would indicate.
The key to this series is which goaltender comes out on top. Both Thatcher Demko and Toronto’s Garret Sparks had great seasons, with Sparks winning the AHL’s Outstanding Goaltender Award this year. The Marlies had the top ranked PK in the AHL this season, while the Comets was 2nd, but Utica’s PP was 21.4% against the Marlies, which was above their season average of 18.0%.
Probably the key difference is the ability to win on the road. The Marlies were 30-5-3 on the road this season, setting an AHL record for the most road points in a season with 63. 2 of those losses (1 regulation and one OT) came at the hands of the Comets.
A lot of focus for Comets fans will be on some of the Canucks draft picks and how they play in this series. Jonathan Dahlen and Lukas Jasek have been impressive since joining up with the Comets late in the season. Kole Lind is likely not to start the series but could see time if the injury bug, which has reeked havoc on this Comets squad all season long, continues this trend. We’ll also be watching Nikolay Goldobin, Michael Chaput and Tyler Motte. Goldobin and Chaput were a force together this season, and it looks like the hip issue that saw him leave Sunday’s final regular season game against Binghamton might be healed enough to let Goldy play today. The Comets D is a good mix of young, upcoming talent in Jalen Chatfield, Ashton Sautner and Dylan Blujus, alongside veterans Patrick Wiercioch, Guilliame Brisebois and Jamie Sifers. Sifers won a Calder Cup in 2015 with Lake Erie. The Canucks could also see Olli Juolevi and Jonah Gadjovich join up with the team for the start of what they hope could be a long playoff run.
Game 2 in this series goes Sunday afternoon at 4:00 EDT, before it shifts to Utica for Game 3 Wednesday and if necessary, Game 4 Friday. A Game 5 would be Sunday the 29th, and I hope to get to Toronto for that one if they make it there.
It’s not going to be easy, but the Comets have shown they can hang with this team. Now we get a chance to see some of the future Canucks in a playoff pressure setting and see how they perform.