by Mark Caswell, Jr.
The Utica Comets drew first blood in the 2016-17 Galaxy Cup series, with a 5-4 victory over the Syracuse Crunch at the OnCenter War Memorial Arena Friday night. The win was the Comets first of the season and improves the team’s record to 1-2-0-0 overall.
Defenseman Chad Billins (1-2-3) paced the Comets with a three-point night, while Jayson Megna (1-1-2), Michael Chaput (0-2-2), and Alexandre Grenier (1-1-2) all recorded multi-point efforts. Goaltender Richard Bachman recorded his 102nd career AHL victory with a 19-save effort.
The high-scoring game took very little time to get going, in fact it took exactly one minute and 58 seconds of game action. With Cory Conacher in the penalty box for hooking, defenseman Chad Billins did not let a puck rolling on its side deter him from rifling a slap shot, knuckle puck style, off of a Crunch defender and over Gudlevskis shoulder for his first goal as a Comet. The goal was the first power-play goal allowed by the Crunch in 12 opportunities.
Not even a full two minutes later the Comets struck again, courtesy of a set face-off play. Grenier wristed a shot past Gudlevskis seconds after Michael Chaput cleanly won the draw back to the 6-foot-4 forward.
The lead was short-lived as the Crunch tied the game at 2-2 with a pair of goals just two minutes apart. Free agent addition Gabriel Dumont scored his first as a member of the Crunch at even strength, and then Michael Bournival quickly followed that up with a short-handed tally.
However, 32 seconds after that, the Comets regained the lead when Carcone tapped in Jayson Megna’s perfectly threaded back door pass on a two-on-one rush. The Comets went a perfect 2-for-2 on the power play in the first period, and capitalized on both Cory Conacher first period hooking penalties.
The six-goal first period ended when Curtis Valk one-timed Grenier’s pass, from one knee, past Gudlevskis outstretched glove. The Comets finished the first period with four goals on just eight shots.
The second period had a drastically different look and feel to it as only the Crunch found the scoresheet. Gabriel Dumont netted his second goal of the night on a spin-o-rama, backhand shot from the slot after he received a pass from the Crunch’s newly named captain, Luke Witkowski.
The teams battled through the first twelve minutes and 35 seconds of the third period to a score-less and shot-less until Megna broke through. Megna tucked the puck into the net past the diving Wilcox after he deke at the top of the crease shook a Crunch defender out of the play.
With goaltender Adam Wilcox on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, the Crunch crawled to within one when Michael Bournival scored his second of the night with 2:50 remaining. However, the Comets would hold strong from there and leave with the victory.
The Comets special teams pitched a perfect game, going 2-for-2 on the power play, and 4-for-4 on the penalty kill. Entering tonight’s game, the Crunch had killed off all 11 of their opponent’s power play opportunities.
The Comets hit the road to avenge their playoff loss against the Albany Devils. Puck drop from the Times Union Center is scheduled for 5 p.m.
UTICA COMETS (0-2-0-0) @ SYRACUSE CRUNCH (2-0-0-0)
OnCenter War Memorial Arena, 7 p.m.
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Tonight’s Game: The Galaxy Cup series between the Utica Comets and the Syracuse Crunch begins anew tonight at the OnCenter War Memorial in downtown Syracuse. Arguably the American Hockey League’s most heated rivalry, the Comets head West in search of their first win of the season.
Last Game: A 5-2 loss to the Toronto Marlies on Sunday evening at the Ricoh Coliseum sent the Utica Comets to a winless opening weekend to kick off the 2016-17 season.
Jordan Subban (2-0-2) scored both the Comets goals and has now captured a point (2-2-4) in all four of his team’s goals this season. Michael Chaput (0-2-2) chipped in two assists, and collected three points in his first two games in a Comets sweater. Rookie goaltender Thatcher Demko made his professional hockey debut with a 28-save performance against the defending North Division champions.
Head-to-Head: Last year the Comets finished the year with a 6-4-0-0 against the Crunch en route to capturing their third consecutive Galaxy Cup trophy. In the all-time series, the Comets own a 11-6-2-1 record good for 25 points, compared to the Crunch’s 20 points with a 9-9-2-0 record.
Scouting the Crunch: The Crunch finished the 2015-16 season strong by capturing a point in 17 of their last 25 games with a record of 13-8-4-0, but it was not enough to overcome their early season struggles and get into the playoffs. In the offseason, the Crunch and Lightning jettisoned four-year Crunch head coach Rob Zettler, four-year captain Mike Angelidis, and Mike Blunden who finished second on the team in goals, in favor of free agent forwards Gabriel Dumont, Mike Halmo, and former Comet, Cory Conacher. The Crunch hope the influx of talented forwards can help stabilize a group that, at times last season, played defensemen as forwards due to injuries and call-ups and push the club back to the playoffs. In net, the Crunch will rely on Kristers Gudlevskis and second year prospect Adam Wilcox. After posting a 2.68 goals against average in 34 games back in 2013-14, Gudlevskis has seen that number rise each season since, and finished with a 2.83 GAA last season. On Saturday against the Rochester Americans, Gudlevskis turned aside 20 of the 21 shots fired on him en route to backstopping his team to a 4-1 victory.
Subby-Subby Doo: Jordan Subban matched a career-high with a two goal game on Sunday. The only other time he scored two goals was also in Toronto, back on Dec. 13, 2015. The 5’9” defenseman chipped in a pair of assists on Saturday, and has contributed on each and every goal the Comets have scored this season.
New Guy: Overshadowed by Subban’s four-point weekend was the fact that newcomer Michael Chaput recorded an assist on three of the team’s four tallies this season. Highlighted by his two assist game on Sunday, Chaput’s positive impact on the power play has been a welcomed addition to the Comets. Chaput, a third round draft pick of the Flyers in the 2010 NHL Draft, won a Calder Cup championship last season with the Lake Erie Monsters. He finished second on the Monsters last season with 45 points..
Co-Co B. Ware: With two goals and two assists, former Comets forward Cory “CoCo” Conacher leads the charge in the points department for the undefeated Crunch. After being acquired at the 2015 Trade Deadline, Conacher, posted 24 points (12-12-24) in 43 games during the Comets run to the Calder Cup Finals. Last season, the former AHL MVP and Rookie of the Year paced the Bern SC club with 22 goals and 52 points while capturing the Swiss National League A title.
Debut on Tap: After missing last weekend’s games, Derek Hulak participated in practice this week without a non-contact jersey, suggesting that he will play at some point this weekend. Hulak followed up an impressive 21 goal rookie campaign during the 2014-15 season, with a 17 goal season last year. All 17 of the tallies last year came at even strength.
Next Game: The Comets hit the road to avenge their playoff loss against the Albany Devils. Puck drop from the Times Union Center is scheduled for 5 p.m.