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Finish strong: the 2013-14 Utica Comets

by Tyson Giuriato / Vancouver Canucks
The Utica Comets defied the odds twice during the 2013-14 season.

First the Comets dropped their first 10 games of the season, only to finish the year only four points out a playoff spot. Madness.

Not only did the Comets indeed fight for a playoff spot right to the end, they turned their entire season around by just sticking with the game plan they set out at the start of the season.

“We didn’t make drastic changes after those first 10 games,” said Comets bench boss Travis Green. “We stuck with the group and stuck with what we believed in. I give the players a lot of credit, they stuck with it as well. They were all in. This group isn’t afraid to work hard.”

With Peter Andersson being the only player on the Comets roster that played the full-season for the Canucks affiliate in Chicago last season, Green, a first-year AHL coach, almost had himself an expansion team on his hands.

Finding chemistry took some time, but patience paid off.

“Our team hadn’t played together before,” said Green. “We had young goaltending which always results in some trying times. I would say after 20 games the team learned their identity and started trusting each other and trusted in the system. Our goalies improved drastically in the second half and I think the maturation of a lot of our players throughout the year played a big part.”

The Comets finished the season with a record of 35-32-5-4, but lost in that is the fact they went 24-12-3-1 over their last 40 games. A big factor in the team’s success over the last 40 games was due to the play of goaltender Joacim Eriksson, who had 16 of his 24 wins during that stretch, along with three shutouts.

“It’s a big change for European goaltenders,” said Green. “Eriksson probably wasn’t used to the speed and the shots of the North American game. The workload and being over here for the first time were just some of the things he had to deal with early on. To see how he played in the second half compared to the first half it looked like two different goalies. He is a guy that should really come into training camp next year and make people take a look at him to see where he is at and ask when he is going to be ready for the NHL, not if.”

Green also noted the development and maturation of some of the prospects throughout the season.

“The obvious guys were Corrado and Jensen,” said Green. “I thought Alex Grenier took a big step this season, for a big man he has a lot of abilities. (Jeremy) Welsh really improved the second half of the season. He was a better player the last 20 games once he really settled into one place. Our young Swedes on the backend made some big strides this year, as did Yann Sauve.”

One player in particular that improved his game drastically towards the end of the season was Alex Friesen. The Canucks sixth-round pick, 172nd overall, in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft had just two assists in his first 34 games of the season. But with some added swagger and increased playing time, Friesen finished the season with 18 points (6-12-18) in his last 20 games.

“He started playing with confidence,” said Green. “He is a very smart hockey player. He isn’t the biggest guy but when he plays with confidence he plays really hard and is hard to play against. He has a really good hockey sense. He is a guy that I look very forward to watching progress next year in the league.”

Another attribute to the Comets turn-around is the city of Utica itself. Playing in front of a raucous crowd night in and night out gave the team a boost, especially through the difficult times.

“I have heard there was a lot of passion in this city,” said Green. “But to see it first-hand all season, was amazing and special. The last game of the year when we weren’t making the playoffs, the guys had to do a curtain call to come out on the ice afterwards. It shows you how much they appreciated the team and how they played. It’s a real good place for players to come and play. The rink is packed every night, people love it.”

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