The Comets snapped their 6-game losing streak last night, which after a difficult start to 2014, was a breath of fresh ice for the struggling team. It was very fitting that they snapped the streak while battling the Bulldogs as January has been exactly that for Utica...a dogfight.
The team started out the month (and for that matter the year) very strong with a 3-2 home win over the Lake Erie Monsters on New Years Day, but since then had gone a long 17 days without a victory. Throw in a tough road trip that saw them give up a lead with just four seconds left in the game, and lose it just 21 seconds later in overtime to the Oklahoma City Barons, and you have yourself one heartbreaking month for a team that had been surging late in 2013.
The Comets had shown so much promise in the months of November and December, so what happened to one of the hottest teams in the AHL as the calendar shifted to a new year?
Well, let's put things in perspective here. The Comets are an AHL franchise, a feeder team for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, who have been decimated by injuries over the last few weeks.
When Utica was rolling, their roster had been relatively intact for a few weeks, as lines started to click, play became more consistent, and Joacim Eriksson had begun to take the reigns as the clear-cut starter with solid play between the pipes.
However, due to injuries to Canucks goalie, Roberto Luongo, Eriksson got the call up to the show to back up Eddie Lack in Vancouver while their starter was out. This caused Joe Cannata, who hadn't seen game action on a regular basis to have to step up as the Comets' de Facto starter in "Joky's" absence.
Placed in an unfavorable last minute situation, Cannata took the challenge and stepped up big time for the Comets with very strong play in goal as he made some very nice saves in the early going in his new role to build up his confidence, and help the team power through the changes to the lineup.
Luongo came back from his injury to play Jonathon Quick and the Los Angeles Kings, meaning that Eriksson's time in the NHL (for now) was up. He came back down for a couple of Comets games, prompting yet another goaltender battle as he and Cannata split time in the cage for a small stretch before Luongo went down again with an injury after just one game back, prompting Eriksson to get the call once again.
After Eriksson's second call-up, Cannata struggled a bit to find his rhythm again and now it was Mathieu Corbeil's turn to make his AHL debut in relief during a game against the Texas Stars. Corbeil started off his Comets career very strong, making some acrobatic saves that actually sparked the team to nearly comeback from being down 4-0, and bringing it to an exciting 4-3 game with many chances to tie it before an empty netter iced it for the Stars, crushing Utica's hopes for a massive upset on the road, and extending their losing streak to four straight.
Then, following Corbeil's strong showing against Texas, it was his turn to get the chance for his first career start against the San Antonio Rampage. Again despite a solid performance from the rookie goaltender, and a good effort overall from the team, the Comets just couldn't get it done, as they lost it in a shootout, 3-2.
With a 5 game losing streak threatening to unravel everything the Comets had worked towards in the later portion of 2013, the low point still had not been reached.
The Comets much anticipated return home came in front of a sold out crowd.
...but so came the Devils.
NO SYMPATHY FROM THE DEVILS
This one was an absolute dagger for the Comets as Corbeil's Aud debut did not go as he would have hoped, and once again Utica's revolving door between the pipes continued as Cannata came into the game in relief in a disappointing 8-3 defeat to Albany, who has been very hot of late.
After an early flurry from the Comets in the first, Albany goaltender Keith Kincaid proved to be very solid, halting a strong Comets attack, breathing life into the high-powered Devils' game. From then on it was all Albany, as a late goal in the first to put the Devils up 2-1 resulted in an explosive second period, in which the Dev's took a 6-1 lead before the buzzer.
Despite a better third period from Utica, the Comets were run out of their own building and sent back out on the road with a gut-wrenching 6-game losing streak clouding any positive play during what has seemed to be an extra long first month of the year.
THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
After six grueling losses and the Comets quickly back out on the road, the team desperately needed something quick in order to turn this thing around.
Well last night, north of the border against the Hamilton Bulldogs, they got just that.
Joe Cannata was back in net as the starter, and the Comets came out ready to play from the opening faceoff. A team that desperately needed to score, and score first, took care of business as they headed into the first intermission up 2-0 on goals from Benn Ferriero and Alexandre Grenier.
A Bulldogs goal in the second would cut the lead to just one, but instead of folding under pressure, the Comets once again showed that resiliency that they have been becoming regularly known for by halting the ensuing attack from Hamilton, and widening the gap once again on Ferriero's second goal of the night (third in the last two games).
The 3-1 victory put the Comets back in the win column at a much needed time, and with every point crucial from here on out, the losing streak is finally now over, and hopefully a winning streak can begin!
So while the Comets may have struggled the last few weeks, it certainly hasn't been for lack of trying. Within the month of January, Utica has seen some of its regulars make the trip out west to join the big club in Vancouver, causing the team that had begun to gel late last calendar year to struggle to find consistency with a new lineup seemingly every game.
Within the last month, the Comets have seen key players such as Eriksson go up and down twice, defenseman Frank Corrado missed a string of games after being called up for a brief stint, big man Darren Archibald saw some more time in the NHL, forward Benn Ferriero spent a few days on the west coast, Yann Sauve was briefly recalled, and most recently, the Comets hottest player offensively, Kellan Lain began his NHL career, albeit for only two seconds last night before being tossed out following the massive line brawl between the Canucks and Flames right off the opening faceoff.
So while it may have been difficult back here in Utica for a period of time, the Comets are certainly making their names known across the hockey world.
As the Canucks continue to try and battle injuries and remain in contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, key Comets players will continue to come and go, leaving the team to figure out how to deal with the revolving door that is an AHL roster.
However, with the recent run of offensive prowess from Ferriero, and Grenier continuing to be a top offensive option for the Comets this year, there is still plenty to look forward to in the near future for Utica. We are beginning to once again realize what it is like to have an AHL franchise back in the area, and how quickly things can change based on the needs of the NHL club.
But we have also seen the excitement that comes from watching players that we have begun to know and love get the call up to the NHL, and make the Utica Comets name very prevalent among a national and even international stage!
So far this season we have seen the ups and downs of a team that has struggled to find their game at times, and at others, have looked like a legitimate Calder Cup Playoff contender. With the inaugural season slightly more than half the way complete, the middle ground between the two seems like a perfect place for our new franchise to start a foundation to build upon.
With the many changes that we have seen over the past month or so with this team, one thing continues to remain the same. Night in and night out, this team will continue to fight for every puck, scrap for every inch of ice, and work their hardest to make us proud.
No matter what the score each game, this Comets team has brought life to Downtown Utica, and has made us all excited for what lies ahead for the sport in this area.
When you get to watch good, fast-paced hockey on a nightly basis, there really is nothing better than that in sports.
And folks, we are now able to experience just that right here at home!
The Comets will continue to find ways to win no matter what the lineup looks like on any given night, and while they may struggle at times to make it happen, they will always make it exciting.
The losing streak is now over. It's time again to start stringing together some wins.
Get ready for the grind that is the second half of the season.
Get ready for the dogfight.
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