If this game was any indication as to how the first round is going to play out for Utica and Toronto, it’s going to be a rollercoaster of a series.

Toronto and Utica exchanged punches like heavyweight boxers before the Marlies finally delivered the knockout blow in overtime to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.

First Period

A bright start from the Comets was halted by a too-many-men penalty at the two-minute mark, but Toronto’s opening power play produced nothing of note. The Marlies did, however, grow into the game from that point, creating the first two scoring chances of the game.

Promoted onto a line with Trevor Moore and Miro Aaltonen, Jeremy Bracco forced Thatcher Demko into a good save during a 2-on-1 break before Adam Brooks brought another sharp pad save out of the Utica goaltender.

A second power play for Toronto produced a better effort but little in the way of puck luck as Dmytro Timashov’s effort struck the post with Demko beaten.

Utica’s first attempt with the man advantage saw them almost sneak a shot through Garret Sparks, who kept the visitors off the board for the board with nine saves through the first period. At the other end, Demko came up big with a save on Pierre Engvall with three minutes remaining to ensure the game stayed scoreless after 20 minutes.

Second Period

Having been somewhat on their heels for stretches of the first period, Toronto stepped their foot on gas and took control of the middle frame. Carl Grundstrom, Chris Mueller and Moore on the rebound all came close before the Marlies earned the first power play of the period.

Calle Rosen was shooting at will without finding his range, and Mason Marchment could have capitalized following a turnover but missed the target from the high slot.

A second man advantage saw just one chance created as Grundstrom fed Marchment in the right circle, but Demko moved swiftly right to left to deny the rookie forward.

The deadlock was finally broken at the midway point following a terrible pass across his own zone by Michael Carcone. Bracco was on hand to intercept the puck and placed his shot perfectly inside the left post.

The intensity ramped up a notch following the goal, with Toronto carrying the majority of the play and laying the body heavily.

Brooks was again turned aside by Demko and the goaltender benefited from some luck after a shot from Moore squeezed through him only for the officials to quickly whistle the play down despite the puck clearly laying free in the crease.

Third Period

The third period contained drama of the highest order — in part due to some exciting hockey, but also thanks to some inept officiating.

Three penalties inside the opening six minutes put the Marlies down by two players for 39 seconds. While the Marlies were able to free one man from the box, a bounce fell for Zack MacEwen to level the score on Utica’s first shot of the period at 6:17.

The Marlies then became more frustrated with the officials, who incorrectly called Grundstrom offside when skating in on goal from the left wing and similarly denied Chris Mueller, who was in alone on clear breakaway. In-between times, Carcone was given free rein to crash into Sparks with no call.

Utica nearly snatched a go-ahead goal just past the midway point, but Ashton Sautner’s tipped shot rang off the iron.

The Marlies looked to have sealed a victory after grabbing the lead with five minutes remaining. A terrific team goal was orchestrated by Ben Smith, Mueller and Timashov, with the latter feeding the puck back to the point to Justin Holl, who found a seam to fire a wrist shot through a ton of traffic in front of Demko.

Another poor call led to a late power play for Utica, and although Toronto’s penalty kill held firm, the Comets found a way to tie it late with Demko pulled for the extra attacker. With Sparks screened by a glut of traffic in front, Michael Chaput unloaded a slapshot that beat the Toronto goaltender top shelf to tie the game at two apiece.

With five seconds remaining in regulation, Grundstrom was called for high-sticking and the Marlies opened overtime with just four skaters.

With one second of that penalty remaining, Cam Darcy had a back door tap-in but Sparks pulled off a miraculous right pad save to keep his team alive.

Controversy then erupted as the Comets believed they had scored the winner after Sparks was high-sticked by his own man in Mueller. After a long delay, it was decided that the puck hadn’t crossed the line and Sparks continued in net despite a huge cut on his nose which required some medical attention.

The Marlies had to fight off a fifth straight penalty before finally receiving a power play of their own, during which Demko pulled off a couple of excellent stops to turn aside Mueller and Aaltonen.

Utica hearts were then broken with 2:12 remaining as the Marlies struck on the power play on their seventh attempt. Mueller took a pass down low and walked out in front before scooping the puck past Demko, who had lost his stick on the play.

Post Game Notes

– Toronto improved to 8-6 in all-time playoff games decided in overtime.

– Every Marlies skater, barring Andreas Borgman, recorded at least one shot on goal.

Chris Mueller netted the sixth playoff game winner of his career and led all skaters with seven shots.

Dmytro Timashov produced a superb Game 1 performance and registered two primary assists. He also drew the penalty that led to the game-winning goal.

– Both goaltenders were excellent, as predicted, and Toronto required 47 shots to beat Thatcher Demko on three occasions. Garret Sparks posted 32 saves for the victory but don’t be surprised if Sheldon Keefe turns to Calvin Pickard for Game 2 on Sunday.

“It’s two elite goalies at this level, for sure,” said Sheldon Keefe. “I’m sure both guys want to make a statement in the series. I don’t know how much goaltending was a factor here today; I thought both teams defended extremely well at even strength and penalty kill, which made life a little bit easier on both goalies. I suspect, as the series goes on here, goaltending is going to be a factor and we have a lot of confidence in our guys. We’ve got to do a better job of making it hard on the other team’s goalie, but I liked how we defended here today, but when we need him, he was there.”

– Vancouver prospect Johnathan Dahlen was a surprise scratch by Utica, who typically find it hard to score.

– Game 1 Lines:

Moore- Aaltonen-Grundstrom



Game Highlights

Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe