The Toronto Marlies will enter Christmas break on a high note after snapping a three-game losing skid in Utica on Friday.
The fifth game in eight days made for a challenge for the Marlies on the road, but they stuck to their task against a Utica team that got the better of them on Wednesday.
The Comets were on top early, registering the first shots of the game, and Calvin Pickard needed to be sharp to deny Michael Carcone on a backdoor play.
Toronto opened the scoring with almost four minutes play on their first attempt on net. Sustained offensive zone pressure resulted in a shooting lane for Justin Holl from the blue line, and his effort took at least one deflection on its way past Richard Bachman.
There were good opportunities for Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore and Rich Clune to increase the lead, while Pickard again was sharp in turning side aside Carcone.
It was a little disappointing when Toronto allowed Utica to tie the game late in the period. A missed clearance led to further cycle time for Utica before Vincent Arseneau redirected a shot-come-pass from Patrick Wiercioch past the helpless Pickard.
The middle frame couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start from Toronto’s point of view. With just 23 seconds on the clock, Joseph LaBate rounded the Marlies defense and sent a backhand feed across the crease. The puck found its way into the net off of a Toronto player — the most likely candidate Frederik Gauthier — and the Marlies found themselves trailing.
To their credit, the road team almost responded immediately, but Jeremy Bracco was denied in the slot after excellent setup work from Johnsson.
A power play for the Comets resulted in little work for Pickard; instead, Toronto appeared to gain a ton of momentum from the kill and went after their hosts with gusto back at even strength.
Bracco was flying as he wheeled around the Utica defense on two different occasions, causing havoc before a shot from Ben Smith created a rebound and easy tap-in for Chris Mueller to tie up the game at 2-2.
The game was evenly-balanced and back-and-forth this stage, epitomized by a crazy 45-second sequence at the nine-minute mark. A rush led by Jean Dupuy created a good scoring chance for Kerby Rychel but he wired his shot wide of the target. Utica then countered with speed the other way and should have done more with an odd-man rush. Back came the Marlies, who struck the post through Rich Clune.
A Toronto power play three minutes later didn’t immediately result in a goal, but the momentum carried over at 5v5 and the Marlies claimed the game’s next goal. It was the Ben Smith show as he drove the net off the right wall and beat Bachman short-side.
The Marlies were indebted to Pickard for his three excellent saves before the buzzer to ensure their lead remained intact through 40 minutes.
The 3-2 lead lasted just 88 seconds into the final frame, but there was a good deal of misfortune about the equalizing goal from the Marlies’ point of view.
Pickard was unable to hold onto a shot from Carcone and the puck found its way into the net via Cole Cassels. Pickard and his teammates were incensed at what the replays revealed was a clear kick-in. Unfortunately, video review in the AHL cannot be used for anything other than whether the puck has crossed the line.
After Pickard had robbed Cam Darcy at the resumption of play, Toronto began to settle down and slowly took control of the game.
Within five minutes, they restored their advantage through Ben Smith’s second of the game following good work from Brooks and Johnsson to keep the puck alive down low.
Only a blocker save from Bachman denied Smith a hat-trick before the game turned nasty. The poor officiating led to growing animosity between the teams — Zack MacEwen was finally called for charging Pickard, while Cassels nabbed for cross-checking.
Toronto wasn’t able to cash in on the two-man advantage but looked to be easing to victory before a dubious call on Vincent LoVerde inside the final minute.
Facing six skaters, the Marlies knuckled down well with Colin Greening and Rinat Valiev both winning battles to send the puck down the ice, securing what could definitely be defined as a “character win.”
Post Game Notes
– Toronto’s 22nd victory of the season is their 14th road win (14-3-0). Toronto’s record vs. the North Division improved to 16-3.
– Calvin Pickard, in his 10th win of the season (10-4-0), came up with timely saves when needed. He was emotionally invested in this game with the missed calls and some of the contact in his crease but managed to keep himself in check when it mattered.
– A three-point game (2-1-0) for Ben Smith extended his streak to six. Smith is now tied for 11th in league scoring with 27 points. His 15 goals stand fourth in the AHL.
“It seems like whenever we put Ben Smith with some guys, good things happen,” said Sheldon Keefe. “I’ve had that line (Timashov-Mueller-Smith) in mind for quite some time and just held off. I used Benny in different spots. But they were obviously carrying us offensively here today.”
– Justin Holl recorded his third multi-point haul (1-1-2) haul of the season to take his season tally to 14 points in 26 games.
– A pair of helpers for Dmytro Timashov’s gives him ten assists for the season. He was once again stood out as one of Toronto’s best players.
– Chris Mueller’s sixth goal of the year was also his 20th point.
– No points on the sheet for either, but I thought Jeremy Bracco and Adam Brooks were both excellent in this game on a line with Andreas Johnsson. Both looked primed to produce more in the second half of the season.
“Adam Brooks played a lot with Aaltonen being out (suspension) tonight and handled some tough matchups against some big, strong guys,” said Keefe.
– Drew Fielding was signed to a PTO and backed up Calvin Pickard with Garret Sparks unavailable due to illness.
– Friday lines: