CLEVELAND -- Tanner Kero had a career day and the Utica Comets continued their recent winning streak Sunday.
Kero notched his first professional hat trick – with help from a shorthanded empty-net goal -- and goaltender Ivan Kulbakov totaled a career-best 40 saves as the Comets earned a 5-1 victory over the Cleveland Monsters to earn a two-game sweep.
The result helped the Comets (20-16-2-1; 43 points) match their season-best win streak of four, with each against North Division teams. Utica is in third place in the North, one point back of Syracuse.
The Comets also have points in six of their last seven road games (5-1-1-0), with a trip to North Division rival Toronto on tap next.
Kero – a key cog for Utica after being acquired by Vancouver in an offseason trade — became the seventh Comets player to earn a hat trick. Kero – who has played 240 professional games between the AHL and NHL – earned the milestone 364 days after Reid Boucher had Utica’s last hat trick.
Kulbakov was strong again, especially over the final 40 minutes Sunday when he had 32 saves. The 22-year-old Belarusian – Utica’s top netminder with Thatcher Demko in the NHL and Richard Bachman out for the season – stopped 68 of 71 shots against Cleveland.
Points leader Reid Boucher had two assists, Vincent Arseneau added his fifth goal in as many games and Cam Darcy also scored for Utica, which continues to work through injuries and roster changes.
The Comets got off to a quick start, scoring 6:10 into the first period on Darcy’s one-timer as he dropped to one knee in the right circle that snuck past Brad Thiessen (22 saves) for his sixth goal. The goal was helped by a strong forecheck and setup by Kole Lind from below the goal line.
Utica made it 2-0 on a five-minute power play. The advantage came after Kole Sherwood caught Zack MacEwen with a scary check to the head on a high, hard hit near center ice and was given a match penalty. MacEwen briefly left the game.
About three minutes into the advantage, Boucher’s one-timer was stopped before Brendan Gaunce found Kero going to the net for his 11th of the season. The goal broke up a five-game goalless stretch for Kero. Jonathan Dahlen also made a nice play near the left boards to help start the play.
After Zac Dalpe – a former Comets player – scored his team-best 15th goal with help from some good puck movement on a power play 4:46 into the second period, the Comets extended their lead again.
On the goal, the Comets forced a turnover and NHL veteran Tom Pyatt – playing his second AHL game since 2010 – flipped the puck out of Utica’s zone. That’s when Arseneau got around a Monsters defender and streaked down the right side before ripping a shot high over Thiessen’s glove with 13:37 left. Craig Wyszomirski notched his first AHL point with an assist.
Kulbakov made few solid stops later in the period – he had 18 total in the second -- including one on Mark Letestu from the left circle with the Monsters on a 5-on-3 advantage.
Kero finished his hat trick with goals at opposite ends of the third. First, the forward redirected in Colton Saucerman’s shot 2:31 into the period for his 30th point of the season. Then, after Cleveland pulled Thiessen for an extra attacker Boucher chased down the puck in the corner and sent a centering feed to Kero, who tapped it in with 3:33 to play.
Comets 5, Monsters 1
Utica 2 1 2 - 5
Cleveland 0 1 0 - 1
1st Period-1, Utica, Darcy 6 (Lind), 6:10. 2, Utica, Kero 11 (Gaunce, Boucher), 15:07 (PP). Penalties-Sherwood Cle (match - check to the head), 12:57.
2nd Period-3, Cleveland, Dalpe 15 (Scott, Broadhurst), 4:46 (PP). 4, Utica, Arseneau 5 (Pyatt, Wyszomirski), 6:23. Penalties-MacEwen Uti (hooking), 3:32; Hamilton Uti (hooking), 12:17; Saucerman Uti (hooking), 17:24; Pyatt Uti (hooking), 18:37.
3rd Period-5, Utica, Kero 12 (Saucerman), 2:31. 6, Utica, Kero 13 (Boucher, McEneny), 16:29 (SH EN). Penalties-served by Hamilton Uti (bench minor - delay of game (faceoff violation)), 5:28; Lind Uti (holding), 14:36.
Shots on Goal-Utica 11-7-9-27. Cleveland 8-19-14-41.
Power Play Opportunities-Utica 1 / 2; Cleveland 1 / 6.
Goalies-Utica, Kulbakov 7-6-2 (41 shots-40 saves). Cleveland, Thiessen 3-2-1 (26 shots-22 saves).
Referees-Jordan Deckard (14), Jarrod Ragusin (2). Linesmen-Rhodes Dolan (68), Trent Williams (81).