UTICA, N.Y. – With seven wins in their last eight contests, including an impressive 5-0 shutout today against the Binghamton Senators, the Utica Comets are giving the rest of the American Hockey League a wakeup call.
After struggling to find wins during the season’s first few months and falling to the bottom the standings, the Comets have improved their record to 28-24 and currently sit in fourth place in the North Division with 65 points.
Even more importantly, the Comets are now occupying ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just two points outside of playoff contention behind division rivals, the Toronto Marlies.
For the city of Utica, stressing out about the Comets’ early season performance was not at all necessary, mostly because they’ve seen this type of thing before.
“The first season, in the first 11 or 12 games, we had a win, and that was it,” said Don Laible, longtime beat writer for the Comets. “Right after the holiday time that season was when things started to turn around.”
Although the Comets didn’t make playoffs during their inaugural 2013-14 season, the Comets and their fans are much more optimistic about the team’s chances this year.
“So now again, just like the first season, right around the holidays and the All Star break, things started changing,” Laible continued. “These are the dog days of hockey. This is the right time to be getting hot.”
The Comets won the Western Conference championship in 2015, falling short of the franchise’s first Calder Cup victory to the Manchester Monarchs, and upon returning to the playoffs last year, Utica fell to the Albany Devils in the first round.
“Coming off going to the Calder Cup finals, playoffs last season were more exciting because you want to get back to the finals, but you realize how hard it is to do that,” said Laible. “Last year with Albany, it was tough because we finally got over the hump and whatnot.”
However, win or lose, the city of Utica will continue to support their team. Including their home game this afternoon, the Comets now have 87 consecutive sellouts at the Utica Memorial Auditorium, a tremendous feat for a minor league organization.
“Here, this is tradition. Whatever goes on outside doesn’t matter when the Comets are here,” said Laible. “It’s never dull, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back. There’s so much excitement at this level because it can only go up.”
Even when the Comets are on the road, their fans take the journey to make their squad feel right at home.
“When you listen to away games on the radio, you can always hear the ‘Let’s Go Comets’ and ‘U-TI-CA’ chants. It’s really amazing how it is such a bond here,” Laible continued. “I can’t imagine this community without the Comets.”
With 15 regular season games left on the schedule, the Comets will continue to focus on one game at a time, and after recently winning seven straight, fans are relying on rookie goaltender Thatcher Demko to keep the team afloat.
“Right now, the Comets are the team to beat in the AHL,” said Austin Fontanella, Sports Director for WUTR. “Demko has been the catalyst behind this latest win streak, and it appears their postseason hopes will rest squarely on his shoulders as they enter the final stretch of the season.”
The Comets will have the week to rest before their busy three-in-three set next weekend, beginning with hosting division rivals, the Syracuse Crunch, at “The Aud” on Friday. They will then hit the road for two more crucial games against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Saturday and the Providence Bruins on Sunday.
“As head coach Travis Greene always says, it’s just sticking to the plan. Maybe it’s the things that aren’t flashy that we don’t notice that have made a difference,” concluded Laible.