Note: This is all written before Game 7 yesterday. Also, I am obviously filling in for James with this post.
Utica Continues to Battle: 1-1 with Toronto
The AHL Calder Cup Playoffs is a beast with increasing series length and rounds starting before previous ones are fully done. The AHL lives on the second half the week and the weekend and so it is with the playoffs. After the Comets downed Laval in two games out of three, they went right to Toronto to play the Marlies last Thursday. They were able to play two games and, as indicated by the sub-heading, split them both. If you love goals in the playoffs, then this series alone has what you need.
The first game was a total barnburner where defense was somewhat optional. The Comets opened the game with a strong first period. Reilly Walsh continued a hot point streak with a PPG to get it started. Then, in a 4-on-4 situation, Graeme Clarke led a 2-on-1 and finished it himself for a 2-0 lead. Early in the second period, Xavier Parent made it a 3-0 game and it looked like a beating was on. Then the Marlies awoke. The three goal lead lasted just under 12 minutes. Pontus Holmberg, Topi Niemela, and Logan Shaw all erased as the Marlies out-shot the Comets 17-7. Not what you want to see under any circumstances.
The third period continued the drama. Walsh broke the tie with another blast from the center point with just under nine minutes left. This was answered back on the next shift by Shaw finishing a feed from ex-Devil Joseph Blandisi. About a minute later, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev made it a 4-5 game. A loss seemed certain until Alexander Holtz fired a hard shot from the right circle. Brian Pinho got a touch on it and the game was tied in the final minute. Alas, overtime would go to the home team. Shaw stripped Aarne Talvitie, made a pass to Blandisi, and Blandisi wired a shot past Tyler Wotherspoon and Nico Daws for the winner. The Comets lost 5-6 in OT. A game where the teams combined for 94 shots and, curiously, 2-for-6 on power plays (1-for-3 each). The Marlies’ Youtube account as a full video of the game’s highlights featuring all 11 goals.
Needless to say, the Comets could not have been happy with how the game went. Blowing a 3-0 lead and then, later, a 4-3 lead has to hurt. Especially since the Marlies won the division and this was a best of five series. The margin for failure was not as narrow as in the Laval series, but it was still not much. Utica would need to respond in Game 2.
On Saturday afternoon, the Comets got the start they wanted. Holtz hooked up Brian Halonen, who was crashing the net, for his playoff goal of 2023 to open the scoring just over 100 seconds in. The fourth line featuring Talvitie and Tyce Thompson provided a second goal. Talvitie flung a backhander towards the crease and it appeared to hit off either defenseman Marshall Rifai or goalie Keith Petruzzelli for a 2-0 lead. Like in Game 1, this lead did not last. A lack of discipline was the root cause in this game. Wotherspoon was given two minutes for cross-checking. Der-Arguchintsev converted the power play. After that goal, Ryan Schmelzer was given two for unsportsmanlike conduct for shoving down Pontus Holmberg at the dot. This was punished by Kyle Clifford to make it a 2-2 game. Were the calls fair? Perhaps not. I’m pretty sure Holmberg sold the shove like a WWE Superstar. But they were made. Once again, a lead was blown by the Comets.
Then it was restored and Utica never looked back. It became a party in Toronto for the visitors. The party got started with a score by Nolan Stevens, putting back a rebound from a Simon Nemec shot. Big Body Schmelzer finished a glaring rebound from a 2-on-1 created by Wotherspoon to make it 4-2. Shortly after that, Nico Daws shut the door on the Marlies and another 2-on-1 rush counter-attack happened. The rush did not lead to the score, but a trailing Parent beat Petruzzelli (and if he did not, Jayce Hawrlyuk was there for a tap-in). The Comets were up 5-2 in the second period. They did not stop in the third period. Rifai was called for tripping during a Marlies PK, a result of a Marc Johnstone trip. Clarke made the Marlies pay with a 5-on-3 PPG for the touchdown. Later, during a 4-on-4, Brian Pinho rushed up to make the extra point good and chase Petruzzelli from the crease. The Comets let up more or less at that point. Which was fine as they were up by five. The Comets took Game 2 to tie up the series at 7-2. The Marlies’ Youtube count has almost all of the goals in this highlight video. The missing Clarke goal is here from the Comets’ Twitter account.
The series is now heading to Utica for the next two games. The entire AHL playoff schedule was off on Monday and if off today. The Calder Cup Playoffs will resume with Game 3 in Utica on Wednesday. Game 4 is on Friday. Should the Comets take care of business at home, then they are through. If they drop one game, then Game 5 will be in Toronto on Sunday, May 7. If they drop both, then they are out. Again, the margin for failure is narrow in a best-of-five.
Notable Prospects Watch
The Comets have multiple prospects on the squad and they continue to contribute to the Comets’ run.
- Alexander Holtz continues to play on a top line with Schmelzer and Halonen and continues to get on the scoresheet. It was thought he had the third period equalizer in Game 1, but Pinho got a touch on the shot so he got the goal instead. Still, Holtz had two assists in each game against the Marlies. Assists mean someone is scoring and some of those assists, like his set-up for Halonen in Game 2, have been sick.
- Graeme Clarke also continues to play in the team’s top six; he started Game 2 with Joe Gambardella and Nolan Stevens. Clarke had a three point night in Game 1 with a goal and two assists. He added a 5-on-3 PPG in the rout in Game 2. Clarke continuing to shoot - 13 shots in 4 playoff games so far - is another positive.
- Simon Nemec has been playing with Wotherspoon on a top pairing. While Game 1 was certainly one to forget for any defender on the Comets or Marlies, Nemec at least shot the puck a ton with six shots in Game 1. In Game 2, he had just the one shot, but had an assist and the Comets only conceded 30 shots. He remains steady from a distance.
- Reilly Walsh has been on a third pairing but the man is hot. Walsh is currently on a seven-game point streak. It started with the final three games of the regular season. In the playoffs, Walsh had a goal in each of the games against Laval, a double against Toronto in Game 1, and picked up his first playoff assist in Game 2. Walsh is currently the Comets’ leading scorer in the postseason with 4 playoff goals, while a bunch of guys are tied with him with five points (Holtz, Clarke, Hawryluk). He is hot and hopefully it shall continue.
- Nico Daws had a Game 1 to forget. Sure, he faced 49 shots in Game 1 but six goals allowed is still quite a bit. He was far better in Game 2 with 28 saves on 30 shots, including a heap of stops prior to what was a dagger of a fifth goal scored by Utica. Daws was massive against Laval with one goal allowed out of 58 saves. If Daws can stay in form like he did in Game 2, then the Comets have a good chance as any of moving on.
- Tyce Thompson has been on a fourth line with Aarne Talvitie and Timur Ibragimov, who drew into the lineup for Game 2. The line did provide a goal in Game 2. Thompson did have an assist on Talvitie’s goal for his second assist of the postseason. Talvitie’s goal was his first since Game 1 against Laval. That both are on a fourth line should tell you where they are in the pecking order. But as any playoff team will tell you, you need everyone to contribute.
Again, the Comets have to at least feel good about their offensive game. They dropped 5 and 7 goals, respectively, on Keith Petruzzelli and the Marlies. I would have to think the Marlies will make some key adjustments on defense. But if the Comets can stay calm and handle their business in all three zones, they have a good chance as any for the upset. Game 3 for Utica is on Wednesday night. Go Comets.
Around the Prospect Pool
While the Comets’ playoff run is ongoing, some have ended. The New Jersey Devils’ ECHL affiliate, the Adirondack Thunder, have been eliminated in the first round by Newfoundland. The Thunder took Game 1 at home, 5-3. However, the Growlers would bark, bite, and run down the Thunder in the next four games. Game 2 in Adirondack was a 4-8 blowout loss. Game 3 in Adirondack was even worse with a 1-7 loss. While the Thunder put up a few more goals in Game 4, they lost in Newfoundland, 3-5. A shutout loss ended the Thunder’s season at 0-3 in Game 5. We shall see whether any Thunder players get called up to support Utica. A quick glance tells me that those better players are already with the Comets.
Aside: ECHL playoff scheduling is weird. The Growlers will be on the road for the first three games in their series and then at home for the remaining four. I do not know how much of this had to do with arena availability and travel as Newfoundland plays up in Halifax.
The Finnish Liiga wrapped up their championship. Tappara defeated Pelicans in five games. Pelicans made it dramatic in Game 5 as it required overtime. All the same, Tappara’s Marcus Davidsson finished it to bring the Kanada-malja (a.k.a. the Canada Bowl) back to Tappara for a second straight season. Devils prospect Topias Vilén emerged as an unlikely scorer for Pelicans in the postseason. Not only did he score a PPG to get his team on the board in what would be their final game, but Vilén led Pelican defensemen in playoff scoring with four goals and five assists. Including the wonderfully-named Ben Blood. Perhaps more important than his production, Vilén averaged 18:34 per game in the playoffs. A great sign of how the Pelicans coaching staff viewed the young defenseman to play him that much in the postseason. Something he earned with an average of 19:26 per game in the regular season. The next step for Vilén is Utica. He was on loan with Pelicans for this season. Yesterday, the Devils formally re-assigned him to Utica. I do not know whether he will (or should) jump right into the lineup in a playoff series. But at least he has a little time to acclimate himself before playing in a crucial Game 3 or Game 4. Still, as disappointing as it is to lose in a championship series, Vilén may have made some real strides for his budding career.
The Ontario Hockey League continues its playoffs as the conference finals are ongoing. Peterborough is tied 1-1 with North Bay with Game 3 taking place tonight. Chase Stillman, playing for the Petes, has two assists and a penalty so far in this specific series. He had the primary on an Owen Beck goal to go with two shots and that penalty in Game 1. In Game 2, Stillman had a secondary assist on the Petes’ lone goal of the game by Brennan Othmann to go with one shot on net. We shall see if Stillman and the Petes continue onward in their quest for the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
Speaking of budding careers, Arseni Gritsyuk is seemingly a former Avangard Omsk player. At least for the moment. Per Hockey News Hub, he is a restricted free agent but his agent claimed on April 30 that an offer from Omsk will not be accepted. The agent states Gritsyuk will either go to the Devils or go to another KHL team. It is true that the Devils are now able to sign Gritsyuk to an entry level contract. The challenge is that Gritsyuk has interest from other KHL teams. Most notably SKA St. Petersburg; a team that is more than able to offer something more lucrative than a capped ELC. Also, a team that just won the Gagarin Cup for a second straight season. That said, the reported offer that Gritsyuk and his agent turned down would have been worth about $1.3 million. That may suggest the player could be willing to come stateside to give the NHL a shot. We shall see. Here is a picture of Gritsyuk four-wheeling with his wife in the meantime.
While this regular Tuesday post is about Devils prospects, I want to give some attention to a pair of New Jersey-based prospects. As well as this country of mine. On Sunday, the United States Men’s Under-18 National Team came back to beat Sweden in the IIHF World Under-18 Championships Gold Medal Game, 3-2. It was dramatic with Danny Nelson getting America on the board just before ten minutes were left in regulation and Carey Terrance scoring the equalizer with less than five minutes left. Ryan Leonard caught Sweden’s top defender, Axel Sandin Pellikka, out of sorts and finished it early in OT for the 3-2 win. The gold is the first for the USNTDP since 2017 and a healthy measure of revenge for the 2022 Gold Medal final (Sweden beat the U.S.). They beat a really, really good Swedish team to do it as the Swedes knocked off Canada with ease and boasted excellent tourneys from forward Otto Stenburg, Sandin Pellikka, and goalie Noah Erliden. The Americans prevailed with Will Smith leading the tournament in scoring with nine goals and 20 points in 7 games, followed by Gabe Perreault, and Leonard. 2024-eligible starlet Cole Eiserman racked up nine goals and 11 points, only bested by the other 2024-eligible starlet Macklin Celebrini of Canada for the underage scoring lead. Full American stats are in the PDF linked on this IIHF page because the IIHF has yet to add player stats directly to their site.
The gold-medal winning American team featured two players from New Jersey. Forward Salvatore Guzzo of Old Tappan wrapped up a season in the bottom six with 17 goals and 28 points with the USNTDP. In the World U-18 tournament, he had a secondary assist on Nelson’s goal in the Gold Medal game along with two goals, an assist, 12 shots on net, and an average of 12:22 per game. Defenseman Aram Minnetian of Woodcliff Lake put up seven goals and 24 assists in the 2022-23 season for the USNTDP. Minnetian put up a goal, three assists, and 14 shots on net while averaging 18:54 in the tourney. No other American averaged more ice time per game than Minnetian at the World U-18s. I will take that to mean he was on a top pairing and played in multiple situations. Look for both to get drafted later this year. You can also follow both in college; Minnetian is committed to Boston College and Guzzo is committed to Harvard. (Aside: I don’t see any New Jerseyans on the U.S. Under-17 team, although Kamil Bednarik played for the New Jersey Rockets U-16 team before joining the USNTDP.)
All the same, congratulations to Minnetian, Guzzo, and the rest of the American national U-18 team for winning Gold. Another one for USA Hockey in a tournament season with a big one already in their hands from the Women’s World Championships.
And for those who like ranking lists, Byron Bader of Hockey Prospecting says the Devils have the fourth best prospect pool in the NHL. It helps that Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec have yet to graduate while putting up relatively big numbers for their respective teams. Before you raise an eyebrow at Nemec, 34 points for a 19-year old defenseman in the AHL is quite rare. It helped in Bader’s ranking that Seamus Casey and Gritsyuk have blossomed. Akira Schmid’s growth also helped.
The New Jersey Devils prospects and the Comets continue on their postseason play. Now I want to know what you think. Will you follow the Comets closely as they continue their series with the Marlies? Will the Devils be able to sign Gritsyuk? Who else is performing that I may have missed? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ prospects and the Comets in the comments. Thank you for reading.