COMETS DOUSE FLAMES, STREAK TO VICTORY IN HOME OPENER
By Jay Flemma – Special to Facewash Magazine
UTICA, NY – Riding a second consecutive shutout by goalie Jacob Markstrom and two 3rd period goals by Nicklas Jensen and Brandan DeFazio, the Utica Comets smothered the Adirondack Flames 3-0 in their home opener at a buoyant and rowdy Utica Memorial Auditorium. The victory moved the Comets (3-1-1, 7 points) into sole possession of first place the AHL’s Western Conference Northern Division, one point ahead of the Rochester Americans, who were idle.
Each facet of the game fired on all cylinders for the Comets: offense, defense, power play, penalty kill, and goaltending, as they took a 1-0 first period lead on a power play goal by Hunter Shinkaruk, then tightened the screws on the Flames, matching them check for check and shot for shot before Jensen gave them breathing room with a laser-beam wrist shot off Cal O’Reilly and Ryan Jones assists at 1:16 of the third period and DeFazio put the game away with an electrifying short-handed goal off a Cal O’Reilly takeaway in the Flames defensive zone with just 4:44 left.
“Cal [O’Reilly, the Center] did a great job of putting pressure on them…to make a pass on the wall that they didn’t want to make, and I saw that they also had guys that were also up on the play, so I decided to go for it,” DeFazio stated. “That’s why you work on speed all summer,” he concluded, smiling a knowing smile.
“It was so loud in the Aud after that goal, you’d have thought the Rolling Stones were playing,” said Comets fan Cal Doti. “Ending the game with a shorthanded goal? That was a storybook way to finish off the home opener.”
It was also one of two defining moments of the game, the other being a stone-cold, highway robbery of Adirondack forward Garnet Hathaway by Markstrom on a late second period breakaway. With the Flames right wing streaking toward him uncontested, Markstrom deflected the puck over the net and into the crowd.
“Marky making that save was the biggest play of the game,” confided Center Dustin Jeffrey. “If that puck goes in the net, it’s a 1-1 game and they have the momentum. That was key.”
It also encapsulated the magnificent scoreless run Markstrum, the game’s first star, has put together to open the season – 172 minutes and counting.
“Well we’ve had great defense,” Markstrom declared firmly, gratefully acknowledging the sterling defensive effort the rest of the squad provided. “When you have guys blocking shots, pushing guys out of my way and boxing out, and doing all the things we worked on in practice, it was a great team win.”
Markstrom finished the game with a sparkling 29 saves. He also tallied 13 saves in the Comets season opening 2-1 win at Toronto, (last year’s North Division champions), and 28 saves in a 3-0 drubbing of San Antonio. Though the Flames did hit the post in the game’s second minute, for the rest of the game – whether it was a critical deflection, a timely poke-check, or a glove save and a beauty – the Comets had the answer for every Adirondack rush.
“We were skating hard the whole game, and we forced so many penalties we were able to play to our tempo. And when we needed it, the special teams really showed up,” added Markstrum.
Close: everyone showed up…and they showed up for 60 minutes. The Comets fought for every loose puck, they only took four penalties the entire game (one for fighting) and they killed all three off without surrendering a goal. Playing as a gestalt creature – the whole being greater than the sum of the considerable parts – the Comets swarmed to the puck, played unselfishly, and minimized mental errors, and that’s a formula for winning hockey at any level, but especially in the AHL, where every player is a heartbeat from the NHL. They have bought into head coach Travis Green’s system and with a lethal combination of skill, grit, mental toughness, and a groupthink attitude, they are making other teams play to their up-tempo, end-to-end, finish-every-play game. It’s easy to see why no one wants to play them – you have to bring it for sixty minutes
Moreover, the hometown fans have adopted this team with the kind of die-hard fervor than the region hasn’t seen since the 1970s era of the Clinton Comets. It’s been a long time since Utica has had a winner, and the fans are making the most of riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave of hometown pride. Yes, endless busloads of fans made the Aud sound like a Seattle Seahawks football game, but the passion the fans showed even during the off season and in the run-up to the season was just as palpable.
“The fans have been marvelous. It means so much to a player to see how the whole city got behind this team all summer,” said defenseman Kane Lafranchise. “Everyone was been buzzing for months, and then tonight the Aud was totally rockin’. It makes you proud to put on that uniform and play for this town. I’m really excited to be here for this.”
The Aud will rock again twice more this weekend. After opening the season with four road games, the Comets play back-to-back home games Friday and Saturday against the San Antonio Rampage and the Toronto Marlies, both of whom they’ve defeated this season. With that in mind, Comets fans will be eager for two more wins and the corresponding good times that follow.
“The Comets are freakin’ sexy!” shrieked a nubile young vixen whose name I never caught, as she splashed her apple-tini all over the Swifty’s bar postgame. “I’d shag the lot of them!”
“If they win the Calder Cup, so would I,” joked one hairy guy in a Comets hoodie in reply, as the rest of the bar laughed in delight.
Still, the sentiment is easily understood. They have hockey fever in this town, and with a gutsy, gritty, unselfish winning team has invigorated the region with an energy no sports team has provided for a generation.
“That’s what happens when you play at the Aud,” concluded DeFazio with a knowing smile. “This crowd gives you the extra step.”
With that as their fulcrum, they might even lift the Calder Cup. And judging by the jet-airliner-esque roar we heard as the horn sounded, for one night at least at the Aud, it was if they already did.
NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES
DOING THE LITTLE THINGS RIGHT
You gotta love it when the players give their sticks away to kids after the game. 11-year old Jacob Hall got one from Darren Archibald.
“He’s my favorite player!” he said, beaming brightly. “He’s awesome!”
So until we get my new hockey writing website up and running, (not long now, I promise!), my new live coverage hockey column, FACEWASH! will appear here. Get psyched hockey fans – all the hard-hitting bone-jarring, sharp-shoooting action is coming at ya…Jay style! We’ll put you right on the ice, so close you can hear the scrape of the skates on the ice, taste the ice shavings as they shower you, and smell the gloves as they smash into your nose! get it as good as you get it! That’s the hockey way!
Tonight’s game: Adirondack Flames at Utica Comets, Friday’s Game: San Antonio Rampage at Utica Comets
Ernesto must have been asleep at the switch when he made last week’s picks, because our normally world-class prediction iguana went dismal 1-2 in teasers and a bland 3-3 overall. Hey Ernesto! Quit courting Ashley there and get back to winning! We’re a mundane 6-6 in teasers on the season 17-7 overall. Here’s the plays that are sure to get us well back into black figures!
AFC WEST IS AFC BEST!
BRONCOS-chargers OVER 44
CHIEFS EVEN vs. rams
It’s the best division in football – even better than the resurgent NFC East. Denver, SD and KC are all dangerous teams on both sides of the ball. We finally lost betting against the Rams last week, (and that’s what’s keeping us AWAY from playing Seattle on the road again this week), but the Horned Sheep will be good for at least three more losses soon..
dolphins +2 at JAGUARS
packers +7.5 at SAINTS
Danger, Will Robinson on both of these…but the Jaguars are more putrid than the Fish are mediocre, while 7.5 is a lot to spot a high octane Packer offense vs. a swooning Saints team.
HORSE AND RIDER!
colts +6 at STEELERS
COWBOYS -1 vs. redskins
The Steelers haven’t been this bad since that 6-10 campaign about a decade ago. What’s gotten into Tony Romo and the Cowboys? Have they learned how to win? Or is it all a tease