The Vancouver Canucks’ season was over long before it was over, but their farm team still has plenty to play for. The 2015 Eastern Conference champion Utica Comets (38-26-12) begin their Calder Cup quest tonight against the Albany Devils (46-20-10) in the best-of-five first round series.
A lot of the Comets roster is changed over from a season ago, when the team finished with 47 wins and 103 points, and came three wins away from a Calder Cup Final victory. While this year’s group hasn’t equaled the level of winning from last season, there’s arguably a brighter future for key players on this year’s Comets team.
Thanks in part to the big league club missing the postseason, the Comets received a number of top players who were sent down by the Canucks, just in time for their own playoffs.
Comets have Mike Zalewski, Brendan Gaunce, Ronalds Kenins and Andrey Pedan back from Vancouver.
— John Pitarresi (@PitarresiSports) April 15, 2016
The team no longer has minor-league-mainstays Cal O’Reilly, Cory Conacher or Adam Clendening from last season’s run to the finals, to name a few. However, they do have eight returning players, including leading scorer Alex Grenier, team MVP Carter Bancks and first round NHL draft pick Brendan Gaunce. With 17 players under 25-years old on the roster, this year’s group should be hungry and willing to perform in these playoffs —under the eager eye of the Canucks front office.
“I think if you ask any guy in the locker room right now, they can’t wait to start this and get it going,” Bancks told the Utica Observer-Dispatch. “This is what you play all year for … You’ve got to lay it all on the line.”
The spirits of Vancouver’s fan base are perking up already.
Comets Coming in Hot
After a five-game losing streak in the middle of March, the Comets closed out the regular season with seven wins in their final 11 games, en route to clinching a playoff spot (7-3-1).
Utica will have their hands full, however, against an Albany team that has won seven of 10 heading into action Friday night. The Comets also dropped six out of eight meetings against the Devils this season (2-4-2). The Devils, who have home-ice advantage in the series, also won an AHL-best 27 games at home this year.
Furthermore is that the Devils have excellent goaltending that the Comets forwards will have to match up against. The 34-year-old Yann Danis has seemingly played everywhere in North America, and has settled in nicely this season in Albany, posting 28 wins and eight shutouts. Add in Scott Wedgewood to the crease tandem, who had a 1.55 goals-against average and a .933 save-percentage in 22 games this year.
But don’t be alarmed, the Comets can score goals. Despite a power play which finished 23rd in the league, Utica totaled 224 goals-for this season —more than their first-place team from a season ago, and good for fifth-best in the Eastern Conference this year. Even without Hunter Shinkaruk in the lineup (who led the team with 21 goals despite being traded in February), the Comets have scoring throughout, with eight current players with double-digit goal totals.
Add in a sound defensive group, solid goaltending and penalty kill and a strong compete level, and the Comets aren’t exactly lacking heading in against a powerful Devils squad.
“I think you’re going to see two teams going at it pretty hard. It’s going to be a physical series. I think it’s going to be tight scoring, tight checking. That’s the hockey we like.” – Comets forward Mike Zalewski, via Utica Observer-Dispatch.
Last Run for Travis Green in AHL?
Comets head coach Travis Green has spent every game as Utica’s bench boss in the team’s three AHL seasons, and this playoff run could spell the end of his tenure with the team —however, his situation has nothing to do with a potential firing.
Another coaching candidate to consider…Utica Comets coach Travis Green. Green is definitely on the NHL head coaching radar.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) April 15, 2016
After missing the playoffs in 2013-14, Green steered his tight ship in Utica into a powerhouse Comets team, en route to last season’s AHL Finals appearance. The veteran of almost 1,000 NHL games simply knows how to get the most out of his players; he coached the Portland Winterhawks to a WHL Championship in his first year as a head coach, which included 37 wins in 47 regular season games after taking over as a mid-season replacement.
Green has carried that winning attitude over to Utica. In a league where many players are eager to learn and develop their game to try and make the jump to the NHL, the Comets’ bench boss lays it out clear and simple for his group.
Higgins, Gaunce & Pedan praising work of Comets coach Travis Green.
“It’s cut and dry there. You know what’s expected of you” – Gaunce
— Vancouver Canucks (@VanCanucks) April 11, 2016
And backed by Green’s guidance, the Comets may just have what it takes to upset the Devils in Rd. 1. You can bet neither Green nor the players or faithful fans in Utica are prepared to bow out after coming so close last year to the Calder Cup.
For the Canucks fans more concerned about the product on the ice, rather than the draft lottery, grab your popcorn for the farm team.
Canucks contributor for The Hockey Writers. Maple Ridge, BC native. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or @ColtonnDavies on Twitter.