The Toronto Marlies powerplay has been consistently good this season but it has reached new heights in recent games.
It proved the difference maker in a ten-goal game against Utica on Friday night as Toronto tallied four times with the extra man to win their third in a row and seventh of their last eight.
Toronto’s penchant for slow starts reared its ugly head again and they found themselves down by a pair of goals inside ten minutes.
It took the hosts just 92 seconds to open the scoring. Jordan Subban found Brendan Gaunce with a perfect long outlet pass before Gaunce finished top shelf past Garret Sparks.
The Comets were simply outworking the visitors early with a strong forecheck while negating space in the neutral zone. Halfway through the period, Curtis Valk was able to pick out Chad Billings wide open in the middle of the Marlies zone and he scooted around Sparks before lifting the puck up and over the goaltender’s pads to make it 2-0 Comets.
It was nearly 3-0 soon after and it would not have been an undeserved advantage based on the run of play. Cody Kunyk forced Sparks into a sharp pad save after some swift puck movement by Utica left Toronto floundering in their own zone.
A powerplay for the Marlies halted the Comets’ flow of momentum somewhat, but — barring a couple of opportunities in the final seconds — it was a poor first man-advantage effort by the visitors.
The game was more even after Utica’s first penalty kill before the turning point came on the Comets’ second penalty of the period. Thatcher Demko performed daylight robbery to deny Byron Froese scoring backdoor, but Toronto got themselves on the board a few seconds later. Andreas Johnsson took a pass from Kerby Rychel before switching to his backhand and beating Demko at the far post.
As Johnsson was in the process of scoring, Wacey Hamilton took a run at Seth Griffith from behind, sending the newest Marlie flying to the ice. Rychel went in to defend his teammate and received a ten, five and two for his actions, while Hamilton somehow escaped with just five for fighting and two for charging.
Toronto was fortunate to escape the first period down just a goal and took advantage by finding their game in the second period.
It didn’t go to plan initially, however, as a turnover from Justin Holl led to 30 seconds of Toronto scrambling around in their own zone and around their net. Somehow, the puck stayed out in front of Sparks.
After surviving the scare, the Marlies turned the game on its head with two more powerplay goals.
The Comets really should have scored shorthanded while killing the first penalty of the period; Sparks inexplicably misplayed the puck, handing possession to Carter Bancks a few feet in front of him. The Comets forward probably still won’t know how he didn’t score when he wakes up Saturday morning.
At the other end, after Utica backed off Dmytro Timashov as he entered the left circle, the rookie winger reached the faceoff dot and sniped the top shelf.
Utica had a prime chance to retake the lead back at even strength. The Marlies’ fourth line of Laich, Greening and Smith didn’t dump the puck in deep enough before peeling for a change, enabling a breakaway for Valk. Sparks stayed with the shot and denied the Utica forward his second of the game.
Just 12 seconds into their next man advantage, Toronto put themselves in front for the first time. In space in the right circle, Griffith’s shot was deflected by Johnsson in front. Demko denied Johnsson and Trevor Moore in succession but could do nothing to stop Froese on the third opportunity.
Griffith found another scoring opportunity with three minutes remaining but was frustrated on two counts — his shot brought an excellent save out of Demko and he was high-sticked on the play with no call from the officials.
Toronto extended their lead with one minute left in the period after Moore’s excellent work behind the net set up Griffith for his third as a Marlie.
Utica came out for the third period with renewed hunger while Toronto appeared half-asleep to start the final 20.
After bungling three opportunities to clear their own zone, the Marlies conceded a goal just 33 seconds into the period. Hamilton netted his sixth of the season from the slot, kicking off a siege on the Toronto net.
There was another breakaway chance for Valk almost immediately after, but Sparks was equal to it again and followed that up with a second stop on defenseman Colby Robak.
Just two minutes after pulling within one, the Comets tied the game up. Toronto lost a couple of battles along the boards and got caught puck chasing, leading to Carter Bancks’ goal on a set up from Chad Billings and Hamilton.
The Marlies pulling back ahead just three minutes after Utica tied the game was certainly a dagger blow to the home side, effectively quieting a raucous home crowd. Back on the powerplay, Moore found the net after Smith found him in space in the slot.
Toronto’s discipline was excellent throughout this game despite plenty of provocation from the home team. William Wrenn’s hooking penalty at the eight-minute mark of the final frame was just the Marlies’ second penalty kill of the game.
The Comets threw everything at the net on the powerplay but somehow weren’t able to level the game. Jake Virtanen was denied by Sparks, Utica hit the post, and several goalmouth scrambles went for naught.
Having survived the onslaught, Toronto played their best even strength hockey of the game for the final ten minutes of regulation. There were opportunities for Tony Cameranesi, Griffith, Froese and Moore, but an insurance goal eluded the Marlies until a late empty-netter from Andreas Johnsson.
This wasn’t Toronto’s best effort at even strength overall, but they found a way to prevail in the type of game they would’ve lost not long ago.
Post Games Notes
– Toronto’s fifth straight road victory improves their away record to 11-13-1-1.
– The Marlies are now third in the North Division, leapfrogging the IceCaps, who lost in Lehigh tonight. More importantly, Utica now trails Toronto by five points, although the Comets have a game in hand.
– The powerplay has tallied in five straight games and is now registering at over 25% on the season. This was the second time Toronto has scored four powerplay goals in a game this season; the first was also against Utica back in October.
– Four Marlies enjoyed three-point games: Andreas Johnsson, Byron Froese, Trevor Moore, and Frank Corrado.
– Seth Griffith’s goal extends his points streak to nine games since joining the Marlies.
– A goal for Dmytro Timashov gives him four in his last five games.
– Kerby Rychel’s primary helper on the opening goal is his 20th assist of the season.
– Brooks Laich made his return from injury, playing for the first time since December 17.
– Viktor Loov was absent due to injury and Andrew Nielsen was out with an illness. William Wrenn and Willie Corrin were the third pairing on defense.
Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe
Game Sheet – Toronto 6 vs. Utica 4