The Toronto Marlies earned home-ice advantage for the post-season and now will need to use it in Game 5 after dropping their second consecutive game in Utica on Friday night.
It was another underwhelming performance from the Marlies, who have yet to find their regular season form so far in the playoffs and paid the price in the two games in Utica. The series will now be decided by Game 5 on Sunday (4 p.m. EST).
If Colin Greening was able to capitalize on a chance 30 seconds in, perhaps the game may have gone another direction, but Thatcher Demko made a key early save before the Comets opened the scoring just 63 seconds in.
With three Marlies caught puck watching towards the right wall, including a late-to-react Ben Smith, it was too easy for Nikolay Goldobin and Cam Darcy to set up Reid Boucher for his second goal of the postseason.
The Comets easily could have extended their lead on the power play, but Zack MacEwen missed the target and Goldobin was denied by a glove save from Garret Sparks.
Only trailing by one, the Marlies flattered to deceive by finishing the opening frame with a couple of chances that saw Pierre Engvall and Greening both turned aside by Demko.
The middle frame was no better for the Marlies, who dug themselves an impossible hole to climb out of. A sloppy start saw them concede a second with less than three minutes on the clock following a silly miscommunication between Miro Aaltonen and Trevor Moore high in the defensive zone. No immediate damage was done, but the Comets worked the puck around before Patrick Wiercioch’s initial shot hit Tanner MacMaster and fell kindly for the Utica forward to fire past Sparks.
The shot clock showed Toronto in the lead 14-6 in the second frame, but that was highly misleading — most of the Marlies‘ shots were from the perimeter and Demko was only called into making two saves of note to keep Toronto off the board.
Greening was hauled back on a breakaway, but Demko still had to deny the veteran forward in tight before Martin Marincin should have scored from the blue paint. The Marlies defenseman gave the Utica netminder enough time to pull off a highlight reel save.
In-between times, McMaster should have extended the lead before Utica found a third goal with 2:31 remaining. The Marlies were caught flat-footed in the neutral zone, allowing Cam Darcy to gain the zone and dish off to Goldobin, who found Reid Boucher. Utica’s recent addition made a fool of Frederik Gauthier, breaking his ankles with a deke before firing a five-hole shot past Sparks.
On a power play that carried over from the middle frame, Toronto stuck just 47 seconds into the third period. Chris Mueller won a battle down the left wall before sending a perfect backhand cross-crease feed to Dmytro Timashov to finish off.
The flicker of hope was quickly extinguished inside two minutes, however, as Utica struck on a power play of their own, with Michael Carcone tipping in a shot from Wiercioch.
It may have appeared to be an opportunistic scoreline looking at the shot clock, but the Comets were far more clinical on their scoring chances and continued to outwork the Marlies late in the game.
Tyler Motte should have scored on another power play, but he scored a fifth for the Comets back at even strength with a little under eight minutes remaining following a Marlies turnover in the defensive zone — Timothy Liljegren couldn’t settle down a bobbling puck — to give Utica a commanding 5-1 lead.
Pierre Engvall nabbed a consolation goal for Toronto, but the AHL’s best road team in the regular season fell to their second consecutive playoff defeat on their travels.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto outshot Utica 42-20 but at least half of the Comets’ total was a combination of goals or prime scoring opportunities.
“We didn’t get enough quality shots,” said Sheldon Keefe. “We gave up more quality than we got ourselves. We carried play and spent enough time on their half of the ice, but couldn’t get to the real good areas to generate the chances we need to generate to threaten a goaltender of this calibre. And I didn’t like some of the chances we gave up — we gave their best people some really good looks.”
– Dmytro Timashov and Pierre Engvall both recorded their second goals of the playoffs.
– Help looks certain to arrive in the form of Andreas Johnsson and Travis Dermott for Game 5. Dermott is likely to replace Andrew Nielsen, with Andreas Borgman still unavailable through injury. Johnsson could well slot onto the top line, but it’s unclear who would miss out. A strong case could also be made for the inclusion of Rich Clune as well to inject some much-needed energy and experience after a couple of lacklustre performances.
– Toronto has only been pushed to a deciding game in the first round on one previous occasion since the AHL changed it to five-game format. In 2015, Toronto led Grand Rapids 2-0 before losing three straight games on the road to be eliminated.
“We know we have another level to get to in this series through four games, including the two at home,” said Keefe. “We’ve had some guys that haven’t really made an impact on this series that we expected would. But we have full confidence from our leaders all the way down, that in a game of this magnitude that’s upcoming, they’ll be at their best.”
– Game 4’s lines:
Moore – Aaltonen – Grundstrom
Timashov – Mueller – Smith
Engvall – Gauthier – Greening
Marchment – Brooks – Bracco
Marincin – Holl
Rosen – LoVerde
Nielsen – Liljegren