Utica, N.Y. - The Utica Comets had a bit of a hiccup giving up five unanswered goals to the Belleville Senators (including the eventual game-winner from former fan favorite Darren Archibald), in a 5-2 loss on Saturday.
However, besides that, it's been a very good stretch for the team of late.
They've won six of nine so far in the month of January, and have taken three of the last four, putting them in second place in the North Division with 50 points. However, with 45 games played most of the division still has games at hand, and with that, the Comets own the fourth best winning percentage in the North.
That's not to say that their second place standing isn't completely without its merits. In the last ten contests, dating back to December 29 against the Rochester Americans (following a 10-1 loss to the Syracuse Crunch the night before), the Comets are outscoring teams 40-32, and have earned 16 of a possible 20 points. It seems as if the team, which has been relatively decimated by injuries and call-ups, has finally found its stride.
Ivan Kulbakov has been solid in goal since taking over the number one spot with Thatcher Demko now up in the NHL presumably for good, and Richard Bachman likely out the rest of the year with an Achilles injury.
Since returning to Utica from the ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings, Kulbakov is 5-2-1 with a 4.01 goals against average (GAA), and .883 save percentage (Sv. %). However, if you drop the inflated 10-1 loss to the Crunch on December 29, after which the team picked up its play, "Kulby" is 5-1-1, with a 2.99 GAA, and .903 Sv %.
They're also getting secondary scoring with guys like rookie Kole Lind starting to produce. Lind scored his first professional goal on January 16 against the Crunch at home, and scored again the next game, on the 18th, against the Devils at home as well.
"It's day and night almost I think. In practice and stuff I feel a lot more confident, a lot more positive with myself and around the team," said Lind on Tuesday. "I feel a little bit more comfortable now that I am producing a little."
Rookie Jonathan Dahlen has also been picking it up lately. He has three goals and one assist in his past five games, and has been more involved in the offensive end with 11 shots on goal in that time.
Since his return from Vancouver, rookie Adam Gaudette has steadily produced for the Comets. He has seven total points so far in 2019, and has registered a goal and three assists in the last three games.
They've also gotten offensive contributions from their back end. Evan McEneny has two goals and two assists in the last two games, and in the last five games, has six points.
This all comes as they continue to get consistent production out of their top forwards. Reid Boucher is on an eight-game goal scoring drought, by far his longest of the season, yet still has a goal and nine assists through nine games in 2019. Tanner Kero has been red-hot, with six goals and three assists in his last five games.
"I think we had an off night on Saturday, but we've been going strong for the last month or so here," said Lind. "I think we've climbed up the standings a lot and we're battling to be a playoff team right now, and I think that's what we expect of ourselves."
He also said that the belief in the group throughout locker room has improved dramatically.
"We've got a lot of skill in that room, and I think our leaders have really shown us the way of hard work and creating space for yourself as well," he added. "So I think the team is really starting to come along."
Head coach Trent Cull said he's been impressed with his group over the past few weeks. Citing what "seems like another year of adversity" with lots of injuries and moving parts, Cull said that players have stepped in and filled roles nicely.
"When you lose your top three [defensemen], you lose your top two goaltenders, you're going to have some nights where it's up and down," he said. "I think the guys have done a great job of putting, kind of, that team aspect, the team first and I think the group as a mass is moving along really well."
The bench boss also acknowledged their place in the standings and how despite playing a few more games than many teams in the division, he's pleased with their current structure.
"I know we have some games at hand so it's a little bit of a false reality, but the good thing is that we've found a way to battle, found a way to compete and we have not made excuses," Cull added. "We're trying to get everybody involved and I think everyone has. I think that's been the best part."
The Comets close out the month of January and head into the All-Star break following a North Division match-up on Friday night in Rochester against the Americans at 7:05 p.m.
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