The Toronto Marlies completed the clean sweep on the opening weekend of the season after prevailing in a seven-goal encounter against the Utica Comets on Sunday.
Just as they did on Saturday, the Comets opened the scoring and could have easily taken a point or more had they been a little more clinical in front of goal through 60 minutes.
“We have a lot of things that we need to fix — both sides of special teams, both side of the puck at even strength,” said Sheldon Keefe. “There are a lot of things to clean up, more so than we would’ve expected coming out of this weekend. But it’s a lot more fun to fix those things when we’re 2-0.”
Chris Mueller drew a penalty inside a minute, but both he and Nikita Soshnikov were denied by Comets goaltender Richard Bachman on the resulting power play.
30 seconds or so after the penalty expired, Utica made Toronto pay for a neutral zone turnover. Carter Bancks and Reid Boucher combined, with the former finishing a rebound off of the pads of Garret Sparks.
The lead lasted a mere 54 seconds as the Marlies struck on their second power play of the game. It bore a resemblance to Saturday’s goal with the man advantage, except this time it was Andrew Nielsen shooting from the middle of the ice with Kerby Rychel on hand to put home his second of the season after Andreas Johnsson’s initial redirect in front.
Utica almost restored their lead after a spell of intense pressure, with Sparks fortunate that a bounce off of the backboards fizzed harmlessly through the blue paint. The Marlies then controlled the remainder of the first period.
Kasperi Kapanen was denied by Bachman, Mueller failed to capitalize during a 3-on-1 break, and after some smart play from Travis Dermott, Dymtro Timashov wasted a gilt-edged opportunity.
Moments after Sparks robbed Jayson Megna in tight, Toronto struck for the second time on the power play. A shot from Mueller was turned aside before Timothy Liljegren showed a great deal of poise in chipping his backhand attempt up and over a prone Bachman for his first career AHL goal.
Buoyed by the late first-period go-ahead marker, Toronto came flying out of the gate to begin the middle frame. Rychel was the orchestrator down the right wing, but Kapanen was unable to provide a telling touch, nor was Miro Aaltonen moments later.
After dodging the early surge, the Comets tied up proceedings with their first power play strike. LaBate redirected a booming shot from Jordan Subban, giving Sparks no chance.
The Comets were now in the ascendancy as the momentum continued to swing back and forth, but Utica was unable to make it count before they fell behind just before the midway mark.
After Justin Holl beat his man to the puck and drove the net, his shot produced an easy rebound chance for Ben Smith to pounce on for his first of the year.
Toronto should have gone further ahead before the officials intervened late in the second period. With the Marlies already on a penalty kill, a scrum behind the net somehow resulted in Toronto receiving an extra infraction, putting them down by two men.
Alexis D’Aoust made it count for the Comets with a rasping drive that beat Sparks top shelf on the glove side.
Utica handed Toronto a power play 15 seconds in, but it was a sloppy effort from the Marlies on their fifth man advantage of the game.
Back at even strength, two of Toronto’s standout players took the game by the scruff of the neck four minutes into the final frame. Soshnikov surged across the offensive blue line before fooling Utica with a perfect drop pass to Ben Smith, who drove to the slot before sending a backhand shot back against the grain. The puck clipped Johnsson’s upper body before finding its way past Bachman, putting Toronto ahead 4-3.
The scorer of the go-ahead strike found himself in the box upon the resumption of play, requiring Sparks to be sharp in denying Michael Chaput from the slot.
Aaltonen, Kapanen, Mueller and Soshnikov all came close to providing an insurance marker for Toronto before the visitors thought they tied the game with under eight minutes remaining. The goal was waived off to a high stick, and there were no real complaints from the Comets.
That was as close as Vancouver’s affiliate came to levelling proceedings as they spent the final four minutes on the penalty kill after Johnsson was bloodied by a high stick.
Sparks was only called into action on one further occasion — turning aside a rush opportunity from Utica — and Toronto preserved their lead until the final buzzer to remain perfect on the season.
Post Game Notes
– A two-point game for Ben Smith, who is proving his worth at this level for a second time with the Marlies. There’s a good deal of chemistry between himself, Clune and Timashov on what is technically the Marlies’ fourth line.
“I thought Timashov played well in both games,” said Keefe. “It’s a really good line for us. Smitty is very responsible in the circle. Timashov really helps handle the puck and drive the puck up the rink. Cluner is just doing a lot of the work. Smitty is showing that he has a lot to offer offensively as well. I felt very good about playing them in any situation.”
– Nikita Soshnikov led all Marlies skaters with six shots and was unfortunate not to score today.
– It was a far better showing from Kasperi Kapanen in game two; he put four shots on goal and found some chemistry with Miro Aaltonen and Kerby Rychel.
– Garret Sparks wasn’t quite as sharp in this back-to-back start but made 30 saves for the victory. Sheldon Keefe mentioned that he wanted to give him the playing time due to a lack of action through pre-season.
– Andreas Johnsson registered his first two points of the season. He didn’t know too much about either the goal or the assist, but he was in the right place at the right time, causing havoc around the crease.
– Timothy Liljegren may have only recorded one shot on target but his attempts, by my count, amounted to five or six. It was an excellent finish for his first professional goal. His most head-turning moment came five minutes into the game when he pulled away from a Comets forechecker and drew a penalty at the offensive blue line:
– Sheldon Keefe went with the same line-up as Saturday, meaning Jeremy Bracco missed out on making his debut.
– Toronto has enjoyed a great deal of success against Utica on home ice since the Comets’ introduction to the American League. The Marlies’ record at Ricoh Coliseum is now 12-3-2-0 against Vancouver’s affiliate.
Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe
Game Sheet: Toronto 4 vs. Utica 3