The Milwaukee Admirals return home tonight and are riding a season long seven game winning streak. The test they face tonight is that of the Utica Comets – a team that pushed the Admirals quite hard last Friday. I would go as far to say that the Ads were outplayed from the second period until the final horn but Mark Van Guilder’s well documented theatrics showed up and saved the team’s bacon in the final minute. Rematch? Buckle up.
Rather than redo a “Scouting the Enemy” on the Comets I decided to reach out to Jack W. of Comets Army to do a Q&A ahead of tonight’s game. You can follow Comets Army on Twitter as well as visit his website.
~Scouting The Enemy With The Enemy~
Admirals Roundtable: Last season you guys missed out on the playoffs. This season the Utica Comets have been at or around the top of the Western Conference for most of this season. What has caused the turn-around?
Comets Army: From the second half of last season to this point, the Comets have been one of the top teams in the AHL. I feel this is due to the cohesiveness of the squad since the AHL All Star break last season. At the beginning of last season the team was kind of in a scramble to build a good roster. So we ended up with what we had which lead to the poor start, not winning for eleven games, and not winning a home game until the end of November. Then, at about the midway point, the signings of vets like Kent Huskins and Cal O’Reilly seemed to inspire the locker room. And the stellar play of Joacim Eriksson brought the Comets to only missing a playoff spot by four points. With the additions of top prospects in the Vancouver Canucks organization such as Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, and Mike Zalewski. The acquisitions of Will Acton, Andrey Pedan, and Jacob Markström. The Comets have been able to build a team with an high octane offense, a stellar defense, and one of, if not the best, goaltending tandems in the AHL. The Comets have been able to control the AHL’s Western Conference for most of the season.
AR: How huge has the goaltending been to this season’s success?
CA: When you have two top fifteen goaltenders on your roster you know they’re doing something right. Both Markström and Eriksson have dominated the net for Utica and been a pivotal part of the Comets success so far. When Markström fell injured in December Eriksson stepped up and held the division lead. Ever since Markström came back they’ve split time and have done great. One game in particular that sticks out is when Markström had forty-five saves and only one goal allowed in a fantastic performance in Glens Falls against the Adirondack Flames. Both goalies have paved the way for this season and, if continued, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the Calder Cup playoffs.
AR: Cal O’Reilly is still a popular figure in Milwaukee for his time here as an Admiral. How key has hey been for the Comets since joining last season?
CA: Cal O’Reilly is still, in my opinion, the greatest signing in our (short) team history. He’s a great playmaker. He’s one of the best passers in the league, fourth in the league in assists with twenty-six, and he’s a pivotal piece on our special teams. He is one of the best players in the AHL and it shows. He’ll be making this third career AHL All Star Classic appearance this weekend.
AR: Dustin Jeffrey is another solid AHL talent on your roster who has been on a surge of late. Just another great piece to your puzzle?
CA: Definitely. Having the NHL experience with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars he’s definitely one of the leaders on the squad. Often playing on a line with Brandon DeFazio and Darren Archibald, it’s one of the more deadly lines the Comets have: Archibald being the big enforcer on the ice, and DeFazio and Jeffrey splitting goals and assists. Having Jeffrey on the squad definitely makes us better.
AR: Tonight’s game should mark the debut of Kevin Fiala. What are the top prospects in Comets camp and some of the guys in the pipeline you’re most looking forward to seeing in the AHL for Utica?
CA: It was really cool seeing Bo Horvat come down on a conditioning stint early in the season. A player that young and that talented. I’m glad he’s prospering in Vancouver. Also having players like Skinkaruk and Gaunce on the full time roster is cool. It’s nice seeing such young talent develop here, and then eventually make the jump to Vancouver. I’m excited in the future to see players like Dane Fox and Curtis Valk come up from the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL to make an impact, as well as Thatcher Demko (currently at Boston College) and Jake Virtanen (currently playing in the CHL). Seeing both of them play in the World Juniors was pretty cool and I’m excited to see what they can bring to the Canucks organization.
AR: The last match up between the Ads and Comets had the feelings of playoff hockey. The defenses were sharp, goaltending was as solid as you’d have expected from a Hellberg vs. Markstrom bout, and there was a thrilling finish. Will we get more of the same in round two?
CA: Yes, unless Eriksson gets the nod over Markström – which is very well possible due to Markström starting the last two games. Not much has changed with the Comets roster since the last meeting and, due to the Canucks going into the All Star break last night, there should be no call ups. Expect a much similar matchup to the one on Friday.
AR: What does the rest of this season hold for the Comets? Do you feel this regular season is setting up for a good Calder Cup run?
CA: The Comets definitely have a chance at the Cup this year having a goaltending duo as they do. They definitely have a chance to thrive in a game six or seven situation. As for the rest of the season, the Comets have a particularly easy schedule but, with teams like the Toronto Marlies on the rise, they can make it tough to contend with the Oklahoma City Barons for the number one seed in the West. It’ll be a long push, complete with three road trips of three-plus games or more, including a three game roadie to end the season. It’ll be interesting to see how they’ll perform. They’re a stellar team at home and they need to step it up on the road to be able to make a playoff run.
Cheers again to Jack of Comets Army. Always nice having us AHL bloggers sticking together.
Expectations for tonight’s game? Can the Admirals winning streak live to fight another day? How will Fiala handle the North American game and what do you expect from his debut? And what will Viktor Stålberg‘s inclusion to the Admirals do for the team?