By Scott Kinville/315 Hockey.
What a difference one game can make.
Going into Friday night’s game against the Bridgeport Islanders, the Utica Comets (9-9-3-1, 22 points, 6th place in the North Division) were slumping. They had lost three of their last five games, including three in a row at home, and were mired in last place in the North Division. The Islanders presented a huge challenge as they are one of the best road teams in the AHL this season, and had defeated the Comets in six of their previous seven meetings dating back five years.
The Comets responded by ending that home losing streak with a hard-fought 5-2 victory. Nolan Foote scored two goals, Joe Gambardella scored his third goal in six games, and Ryan Schmelzer scored his first goal of the season on what could only be described as a highlight reel goal. Tyce Thompson also scored against the team that his father, Brent Thompson, is the head coach.
Another huge component of Friday night’s win was the play of goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Blackwood arrived in Utica earlier this week on a conditioning loan from the New Jersey Devils and made his Comets debut on Wednesday night against the Laval Rocket. It was a night to forget for the goaltender and the Comets, as the effect of not playing for six weeks showed in a 5-2 loss.
On Friday night, Blackwood gave up a first-period goal on a great play by Ruslan Iskhakov that was a perfectly placed shot. As the game wore on, however, he got better and better. It was obvious Blackwood had shaken off the rust of his extended absence from gameplay, as he made several strong saves and kept the Comets in the game so that their four-goal explosion in the third period could seal the victory.
On Saturday night, the Comets host another Atlantic Division opponent as the Springfield Thunderbirds (10-11-1-4, 25 points, 7th place in the Atlantic Division) come to town. Like the Comets, the defending Eastern Conference champion Thunderbirds have been dealing with major roster changes from last seasons team. Gone are leading scorers from 2021-22 Matthew Peca and Sam Anas and goaltender Charlie Lindgren – who had a record 24-7-1 for the Thunderbirds last season.
This season, Springfield has two new faces at the top of their scoring list. Matthew Highmore, who spent the last three seasons in the NHL playing for the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks, is the Thunderbirds leading scorer with twenty-five points. Right behind Highmore is Martin Frk, he of the 109 mph slapshot who came to Springfield after having been in Los Angeles Kings organization for the past three seasons.
Lindgren and Joel Hofer formed a solid goaltending tandem for the Thunderbirds in 2021-22. With Lindgren’s departure, the Thunderbirds net belongs entirely to Hofer, who has played in eighteen of the teams twenty-six games thus far this season.
Thunderbirds are coming off a loss on Friday night in Syracuse, while the Comets are looking to build on the aforementioned win the night before against Bridgeport. Let’s take a look at how the teams match up against each other.
Utica Comets Team Offense
Goals For: 66 (28th in the AHL).
Goals For Per Game: 3.0 (20th in the AHL).
Shots Per Game: 29.09 (25th in the AHL).
Power Play: 20.5% (15 for 73).
Springfield Thunderbirds Team Offense
Goals For: 69 (25th in the AHL).
Goals For Per Game: 2.65 (28th in the AHL).
Shots Per Game: 28.58 (29th in the AHL).
Power Play: 18.9% (21 for 111).
Utica Comets Top Five Scorers
1.) Brian Pinho: 8 goals + 8 assists = 16 points.
2.) Graeme Clarke: 5 goals + 8 assists = 13 points.
3.) Reilly Walsh: 2 goals + 11 assists = 13 points.
4.) Nolan Foote: 8 goals + 4 assists = 12 points.
5.) Tyce Thompson: 5 goals + 7 assists = 12 points.
*Andreas Johnsson is third on the Comets in points with 13, but is currently playing for the New Jersey Devils.
Springfield Thunderbirds Top Five Scorers
1.) Matthew Highmore: 6 goals + 19 assists = 25 points. Highmore is 10th in the AHL in assists and 19th in points..
2.) Martin Frk: 5 goals + 14 assists = 19 points.
3.) Nikita Alexandrov: 8 goals + 6 assists = 14 points.
4.) Nathan Todd: 8 goals + 6 assists = 14 points.
Matthew Highmore leads the Thunderbirds in shots with 59. Highmore, Martin Frk, and Nikita Alexandrov lead the Thunderbirds in power play goals with three each. Anthony Angello leads the team in game winning goals with two.
Utica Comets Team Defense
Goals Against: 70 (11th in the AHL).
Goals Against Per Game: 3.18 (18th in the AHL).
Shots Allowed: 639.
Shots Allowed Per Game: 29.05 (6th in the AHL).
Penalty Kill: 77.1% (54 for 70).
Shorthanded Goals For: 3 (16th in the AHL).
Springfield Thunderbirds Team Defense
Goals Against: 73 (13th in the AHL).
Goals Against Per Game: 2.81 (8th in the AHL).
Shots Allowed: 864.
Shots Allowed Per Game: 33.23 (30th in the AHL).
Penalty Kill: 84.8% (95 for 112 – 5th in the AHL).
Shorthanded Goals For: 5 (4th in the AHL).
Utica Comets Goaltending
Nico Daws has a record of 5-6-1 with a GAA of 2.64, a 0.905 save percentage, and no shutouts. Daws is 20th in the AHL in GAA.
Mackenzie Blackwood has a record of 1-1-0 with a GAA of 3.03, a 0.891 save percentage, and no shutouts. Blackwood was in goal on Friday night against Bridgeport.
Issac Poulter has a record of 1-1-2 with a GAA of 4.35, a 0.865 save percentage, and no shutouts.
Springfield Thunderbirds Goaltending
Joel Hofer has a record of 7-7-4 with a GAA of 2.20, a 0.928 save percentage, and 1 shutout. Hofer is 4th in the AHL in. GAA, 5th in save percentage, and 16th in wins.
Vadim Zherenko has a record of 3-4-1 with a GAA of 3.02, a 0.919 save percentage, and no shutouts. Zherenko was in goal on Friday night against Syracuse.
Saturday nights game at the Adirondack Bank Center is scheduled to begin at 7 pm EST. Radio coverage for Saturday nights game will be on 94.9 K-Rock, and the television broadcast will be on AHLTV. For more information about the Utica Comets, including schedules and ticketing, visit https://uticacomets.com.