First Round Preview
by Mark Caswell, Jr.Apr 25, 2015
In case you have not heard, and how could you not? The Comets chase for the historic Calder Cup fires up tomorrow night in Chicago vs the Wolves, in Game 1 of the 2015 American Hockey League playoffs.
As the top team in the Western Conference through the regular season, the Comets have been afforded the opportunity to open against the eighth and last seeded Wolves. However, the regular season means nothing now, and looking at these two teams, the similarities are astounding. Just how similar? Take a look at the season series which was split right down the middle. Each team took two wins a piece, both went 1-1 at home and on the road, and each team earned a shutout victory, as well as a one-goal win over the other.
The Comets held a slight advantage in goals (9-8) and points in the series (5-4) due to a Wolves overtime victory.
Getting an early lead has proven vital to both team’s success. The Comets lost just one game when they led after two periods (36-0-1-0) this season, while the Wolves went the duration of the season undefeated (30-0-0-0). Those impressive marks aren’t an anomaly for either team. The Wolves have not blown a two-period lead in 47 games, with their last loss coming back on Dec. 28, 2013. The Comets have a similar stretch with a 15-0-3-0 record during the 2013-14, and a franchise mark of 41-0-4-0 when leaving the second period with a lead.
That stat extends to the first period for both teams as well. The Comets compiled a 25-2-0-1 record this year, to the Wolves 20-1-0-0 mark, when leading after one. Scoring first is yet another similarity for the Comets and Wolves, with the team’s ranking third and fourth in the circuit, respectively.
Historically, getting out of Game 1 on the right foot favors the victors. The winner of Game 1, in a five game playoff series since it was introduced in the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs, have gone on to win the series 19 out of 24 times (79.2%).
One of the more hotly debated topics in the Mohawk Valley this week centered around the Comets’ decision to begin the series on the road in Chicago. Due to the AHL’s first round five-game series playoff format of 2-3, the Comets’ coaching staff was forced into deciding whether they wanted to open the series with two games on the road and the final three at The AUD, or the first two at The AUD and the final three on the road. Travis Green and Co. chose the former. The decision was not an easy one and it was one that was closely analyzed. One of the deciding points was just how good the Comets were on the road (22-10-4-2) this year. The best in fact. With a winning percentage of .658%, the Comets were more successful on the road, than the Wolves were at home (19-15-3-1, .568%).
Offensively, just nine goals separated these two, with the Comets holding a 219-210 edge. While the Comets spaced out their scoring with 14 different skaters scoring double digit goals, which was a league best, the Wolves scoring centered around the duo of Shane Harper (32) and Ty Rattie (21). The good news for Utica is that Rattie is currently chasing a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues. The bad news? Rattie is eligible to return to the Wolves once the Blues are eliminated, and they currently trail the Minnesota Wild in the series 2-1.
Harper will be a player the Comets must keep an eye on. His 32 goals were the third most in the league, and his 10 game-winning goals, and 22.2% shooting percentage were a league best.
The Wolves had six other double digit goal scorers including former Comet Jeremy Welsh, who enjoyed a career year with 41 points (20-21-41).
The Comets offense added some offensive firepower at the Trade Deadline when the Vancouver Canucks acquired Sven Baertschi and Cory Conacher. The duo have combined for 14 goals, and 17 assists since joining Utica on March 2nd.
With points in 10 out of his last 13 games, rookie forward Hunter Shinkaruk surpassed 30 points on the season (16-15-31). The 24th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks has surged late and has become a big part of the Comets offense.
In net and on defense are two places where the Comets own a distinct advantage. Led by all-star defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti’s 16 goals and 40 points, the Comets blue line corps is loaded with talent. Utica can, and probably will, fill out a line-up card that lists five out of six defenseman with NHL experience, four of which played in an NHL game this year alone. By comparison, the Wolves do not have a defenseman on the roster that scored more than six times this season.
In net, the Comets have the American Hockey League’s second best goaltender in the league, statistically speaking. Jacob Markstrom’s 1.88 GAA and .934 save percentage rank only behind Matt Murray and his remarkably ridiculous numbers of 1.58 GAA and .941 save percentage.
The Wolves have split goaltending duties between rookie Jordan Binnington (45 GP) and Matt Climie (37 GP). Binnington not only posted superior numbers than Climie across the board, he also shutout the Comets in the lone game he saw against them.
Keys to the Series
Score Early, or Score Thrice. It’s no secret that you need to score to win in hockey. With that said, scoring three goals for has seemed to be the magic number for the Comets. Utica has scored three goals in 47 games this year, and have won 40 of them (85.1%). Scoring early has also been a key to success for the Comets. When the Comets score first, they are 26-10-4-0, and win the game 65% of the time.
Special Teams Needs to Capitalize. The Wolves don’t take many penalties, seventh least penalized team in the American Hockey League to be exact. The Comets power play ranks 18th (16.1%) in the league, while Chicago’s penalty kill ranks 19th (82.6%). However the Comets special teams have an early opportunity to capitalize, as Chicago’s 79.7% penalty kill rate at home was the second worst in the league.
Give The AUD a Pulse. The Comets up-tempo attacking pace is an easy style of hockey to cheer for. Add in the unique atmosphere that Comets fans create at The AUD, and things get downright electric on gameday. Utica fans will need to make their presence known throughout the playoffs just like they have all season. During sellouts at The AUD the Comets won 17 out of 28 games (61%) with the help of their 5th Line.
By the Numbers
How many times the Comets have lost a game when they entered the third period with a lead. (4/15/15 @ Binghamton 6-5 OT)