The season did not start out well. The Utica Comets were winless in their first 10 games in their inaugural season in the American Hockey League, and they struggled mightily through the first couple of months.
“I wouldn’t say worried,” said coach Travis Green, who was making his professional debut behind the bench. “I had high expectations of starting the year off right. There were some trying times for our coaching staff. There definitely was a time we wondered if we were doing the right things.”
The 0-8-1-1 start put the Comets in an enormous hole. That, plus a six-game winless streak in early January and an epic collapse against the Syracuse Crunch on April 5 that cost them two crucial points in the standings didn’t help at all.
But despite a dearth of goal-scoring – 2.46 goals per game, 26th in the 30-team league – the Comets eventually figured it out. After an 8-3 home loss to the Albany Devils on Jan. 17, they went 24-12-3-1 to finish 35-32-5-4, two points out of the Calder Cup playoffs.
The desperate run over the last three months, and a season-long penchant for playing dramatic, one-goal games (24-22 in 46 of them) provided a lot of drama, and seemed to win over the majority of fans, thousands of whom saluted the team wildly after Saturday’s finale, a 2-0 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“Guys had a better understanding of how Travis wanted us to play, and when Cal (O’Reilly) came in,” he said. “(O’Reilly) provided a lot of things, and not just points – leadership and skills, on and off the ice.”
Green felt the team played better than its record early.
“We had young guys in goal, we had young guys on defense,” he said. “Our team had never played together. It seems simple, but it isn’t. Even how your voice sounds matters. … When we added Husky (Kent Huskins) and O’Reilly, it made a difference. Both goalies (Joacim Eriksson and Joe Cannata) began developing after 15 or 20 games. That might be the biggest thing.”
Green plans to pound home the lessons learned this season next season.
Pat Conacher, the Stanley Cup winner and former Utica Devils captain who is the team’s director of operations, said he doesn’t know if all or any of the players who fall under the AHL’s veteran rule – Pelletier, O’Reilly, Huskins, Colin Stuart, Benn Ferriero, Alex Biega – will be back, or short-term vets like Brandon DeFazio, the only Comet to play every game this season, who had his best year in three AHL seasons at 17-17 -34 and plus-6.
He does know he is looking for better results as the Comets try to win and develop talent for the parent Vancouver Canucks.
“It is not satisfactory,” he said. “The goal is to not only make the playoffs, but to win championships, every year. … They all want to be in the NHL. They have to do their work down here. Every game is important, first to last. If they play 12 minutes or 15 minutes, they have to make themselves the very best they can be in those minutes. The kids have to learn that down here.”