BY KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
UTICA – Just as the public address announcer at the Adirondack Bank Center proclaimed one minute remained, the human whiteout that was the sellout crowd of 3,917 began to chant, “We want the Cup! We want the Cup!”
And while it may be a little early to start planning a Calder Cup parade in the Mohawk Valley – after all, Tuesday night’s 6-3 victory over the Rochester Americans was merely Game 1 of the best-of-five North Division semifinals – the Utica Comets did look every bit the part of a champion.
OK, maybe not in the first period, when the Amerks vaulted to a 2-0 lead in the first 6:03.
But given that the Comets hadn’t played in 10 days, and the Amerks had momentum and mojo from a 2-0 sweep of Belleville in last week’s play-in series, a slow start was understandable, even expected.
Then the Comets found their legs, and found their game. They dominated the second period, moving into a 3-3 tie, then overpowered the Amerks in the final 10:31 of the third period.
“They were getting turnovers and we were under the pressure all the time,” said Amerks winger Arttu Ruotsalainen, who scored two more goals and now has five goals, two assists and seven points in three post-season games.
JJ Peterka scored the other goal for the Amerks, who outshot the Comets 9-5 in the first period but were outshot 40-22 in the game.
Joe Gambardella broke the 3-3 tie at 9:29 of the third, slamming home the rebound after Fabian Zetterlund hit the post on a breakaway.
And just like that, from a 2-0 lead in barely over six minutes to a 1-0 series deficit, and in a best-of-five series, there isn’t much room for error.
“I think we let them play their game and we didn’t do a great job countering it,” defenseman Casey Fitzgerald said.
“That can’t happen,” Amerks coach Seth Appert. “That’s the D-corps not boxing guys out, that’s the centerman losing the draw, that’s the wingers not executing.”
Indeed, it’s really not what happens when the puck hits a stick on the drop from the linesman. It’s what happens when the puck leaves the faceoff circle. The Amerks left too many opponents free and tied up too few sticks.
“It’s really just winning your battles,” Fitzgerald said. “You can design all the X’s and O’s you want but it comes down to winning battles.”
It was an issue in Belleville Friday in Game 2 of that mini play-in series. The Senators started their third-period comeback from a 3-1 deficit by scoring directly off a faceoff, though the Amerks won 4-3 in overtime.
The Amerks now face the pressure of trailing in the series heading into Game 2 (7 p.m. Saturday back in Utica). The series shifts to Rochester for Games 3 and 4 (7:05 p.m. Sunday and, if necessary, Tuesday). Game 5 would be May 19 in Utica.
“I trust our team, we just need to keep it simple,” Ruotsalainen said. “Sometimes you have to play a boring game.”
The Comets wanted none of that. They feed off quick transition and, like Belleville, love to use their size and strength to batter opponents. There was a scrum at the end of the third period with Amerks captain Michael Mersch and defenseman Mitch Eliot irate with Gambardella and Michael Vukojevic.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Mersch said.
This, after Utica’s Samuel Labarge and Kevin Bahl and Amerks defenseman Peter Tischke were given misconducts for a little dust-up in front of the Comets bend with 18 seconds remaining. A late hit by Labarge on Jack Quinn prompted Tischke to race in and spark the pawing and punching.
The Comets want to show they have a physical advantage. The Amerks want to prove they can’t be pushed around.
“That’s fun, that’s playoff hockey, that’s what it should be,” Appert said.
The game was really fun for the Amerks in the first period. The game was barely six minutes old and they led 2-0. Brett Murray fished the puck out of the right corner and passed to the right circle, Ruotsalainen calmly picked the far side of the net with a wrister at 2:21.
Peterka’s power-play goal at 6:03 pushed the lead to 2-0. Quinn took a hit on the boards near the left point to move the puck to Ethan Prow at the point. Prow quickly found Jankowski above the left circle, and he instantly passed across to Peterka, who whipped home a wrister from high slot.
The Comets produced just five shots in the period (the Amerks had nine) but they were very much themselves in the second, outshooting Rochester 20-5 and outscoring the visitors 3-1.
The goal came after a faceoff win to the right of goalie Aaron Dell, and after the Utica line of Chase DeLeo, Alexander Holtz and Greer had the Comets best shift of the game, creating the first shift-long, sustained offensive-zone pressure.
Robbie Russo then tied the score just 59 seconds later, driving a one-timer from the left circle high past Dell. The Amerks lost coverage on Russo, and Nikita Okhotiuk found him alone at the dot.
“We started turning pucks over and they started winning puck battles and that allowed them to play downhill on us,” Appert said.
Ruotsalainen put the Amerks back on top at 11:37 when his shot from the right circle ramped up off the blade of the stick of Okhotiuk and sailed past goalie Nico Daws.
But the Comets tied the scored 4:16 later on a power play, with Ryan Schmelzer shoveling in the rebound of Greer’s point shot.
The power play was a gift from referee Mike Dietrich, who somehow ruled Peterka’s love-tap on Michael Vukojevic was an illegal slash. On a scale of 1 to 10 in the regular season, with 10 being most severe, it would have been a 1. In the playoffs, it was about a negative-4.
“We’ve allowing guys to get cross-checked in the head, but we’re going to worry about those things? Come on,” Appert said.
Note: Ticket sales for Game 3 have pushed well past 6,000, meaning Sunday’s crowd should be the largest for a playoff game in Rochester since the 2004 season. The Amerks haven’t had a crowd of more than 7,000 since 2012 (7,118 for Game 3 of the first round vs. Toronto).
Kevin’s 3 stars, presented by Salvatore’s Old Fashioned Pizzeria
- A.J. Greer, Comets … 2 game-breaking goals late, a nasty, energetic presence throughout.
- Arttu Ruotsalainen, Amerks … 2 more goals, he leads the AHL in playoff scoring.
- Nikita Okhotiuk, Comets … Set up the 2nd goal, powerful in front of the net.