The Toronto Marlies clinched a playoff berth but not in the manner they’d have preferred on Friday night.
St. John’s fell to defeat after a goal against in the 59th minute of play versus Albany, ensuring Toronto’s passage to the postseason despite a loss to the Comets on Friday evening.
It was never going to be plain sailing in a road visit to Utica, but Toronto didn’t help their cause with a poor showing against a Comets team desperate for points in their playoff push.
The opening eight minutes were mostly controlled by the Marlies, who were hemming Utica in with an excellent cycle game without creating many chances of note. The best opportunity fell to Brendan Leipsic during an odd-man rush, but he chose a pass instead of a shot and Utica were able to clear the danger.
Garret Sparks wasn’t called on until Toronto’s first penalty kill at the 8:37 mark, when he had to be sharp to turn aside Evan McEneny with a sprawling save after the Comets defenseman waltzed straight through the Marlies defense.
Toronto’s discipline left a lot to de desired during this game, with Kerby Rychel the next Marlie to head to the box at the 11-minute mark. After a sustained spell of pressure thanks to consecutive offensive zone faceoff wins, the Comets opened the scoring on their second power play, with Joseph LaBate redirecting a shot from Colby Robak.
It was Toronto’s turn with the extra man 30 seconds later, but it proved a pathetic effort as the Marlies failed to set up in the Comets zone. Utica took great heart from their kill and immediately forced Sparks into a pair of saves.
After efforts from Brendan Leipsic and Colin Greening were turned aside by Thatcher Demko, Toronto earned their second power play of the game at the 16:47 mark following a scrum after a whistle. It proved a better effort than the first, although Demko wasn’t tested and the Marlies finished with just six shots on goal through 20 minutes.
The middle frame was a period Toronto will want to forget in a hurry. A series of errors from the visitors allowed Utica to stretch their lead and could easily have put the game to bed had the Comets been more clinical with their scoring chances.
A positive start from the Marlies saw them draw a penalty, but the period quickly went downhill after that. After Andrew Nielsen cut the power play short with a penalty 25 seconds into the man advantage, Utica was on top during 4-on-4 action.
Darren Archibald escaped on a breakaway and drew a penalty shot, but the left winger failed to test Sparks as he sent his effort past the goaltender’s right post.
Seth Griffith was the next Marlie to take a seat, presenting the Comets with an eventual two-man advantage. Utica made it count with two seconds remaining, with Cody Kunyk finishing off a pass from Archibald. The Comets were still on the powerplay having struck during the 5-on-3 but they were unable to add to their lead.
Utica carried the play until Wacey Hamilton was nabbed for hooking at 13:44. Toronto’s propensity for cutting their own power plays short continued after Andreas Johnsson was forced into hooking Cole Cassels to prevent a shorthanded rush the other way.
Sparks pulled off one miraculous stop on the ensuing penalty kill and then robbed Virtanen with a nice glove back at even strength.
To cap off the calamitous nature of the period, Steve Oleksy caught a lob out of the zone from Utica and failed to release the puck from his hand in time. He took a seat with 20 seconds of the period remaining, meaning the Marlies began the final frame down a man.
Sparks ensured no further damage was done to the scoreline, although his mask may have needed some TLC after he took a blast from Borna Rendulic directly to the lid.
The home team seemed happy to hang onto their slim lead, allowing Toronto to build pressure for the first time since the opening eight minutes of the game.
It was Utica’s turn to take a host of penalties, and the Marlies finally capitalized with two extra skaters on for over a minute. Mike Sislo fired home from the left circle to halve the deficit and the goal was timely enough that the Toronto power play continued.
The Marlies could not force a tying goal despite drawing yet another power play, but there was still ten minutes left to search for an equalizer. Sheldon Keefe had thoroughly mixed up the 5v5 lines looking for a spark by this juncture, but it never really arrived.
Sergey Kalinin and Frederik Gauthier came the closest to levelling the game with bundles of endeavour around the net, but there was no cutting edge.
With Sparks pulled inside the final two minutes, the Comets secured victory with an empty net goal to end the Marlies seven-game winning streak.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies’ lead at the top of the North Division is cut to three points after Syracuse took a point from an overtime loss to Binghamton.
– This is the sixth straight season that Toronto has qualified for the postseason.
– Toronto mustered 26 shots on net, 12 of which came in the third period.
– All three goals were scored on the power play. Utica went 2 for 6 with the extra man, Toronto 1 for 7.
– Toronto won the season series with Utica 5-3. All three losses occurred on the road.
– Brendan Leipsic extended his point streak to seven games with a primary assist.
Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe
Game Sheet – Utica 3 vs. Toronto 1