With their backs against the wall, the Toronto Marlies produced their best performance of the series to prevail in a winner-takes-all Game 5 against Utica on Sunday evening.
Lifted by the return of Andreas Johnsson and Travis Dermott, the Marlies looked like a different team at both ends of the ice and got the ‘A’ game from Garret Sparks between the pipes when they needed it most.
Back inside the friendly confines of Ricoh Coliseum, Toronto nearly scored inside 30 seconds but Miro Aaltonen just failed to connect on a feed from the returning Andreas Johnsson, who was impacting the game already early.
The early goal the Marlies craved arrived just three minutes later, when Toronto’s faltering power play finally clicked — Johnsson and Pierre Engvall combined to tee up Carl Grundstrom at the back post four minutes in.
The Comets were struggling to create much offensively but were nearly gifted a tying goal thanks to Garret Sparks’ only error of the game — he misplayed the puck behind his net but got back in time to deny Carter Bancks at the nine-minute mark.
Colin Greening likely would’ve given his team a two-goal lead but was slashed during a 2-on-0 break, and Toronto’s power play could not convert on its second opportunity.
The Marlies‘ penalty kill then had to go to work, and despite a flurry of action around the crease, held firm to keep the Comets off the board.
In hindsight, the turning point of the game came with 2:30 left in the first period. Toronto failed to hit the target during a 4-on-2 break and left themselves open on a rush back the other way. Sparks produced a good blocker stop to deny Reid Boucher, and having lost his glove on the play, proceeded to pull off a barehanded save to rob Cam Darcy of a goal on the rebound.
Thatcher Demko responded in kind by grabbing hold of a shot from Trevor Moore to ensure the Comets only trailed by one through 20 minutes.
The middle frame turned into a penalty-ridden affair, not helped by some dubious calls from the officiating crew.
Utica came out for the middle 20 with some impetus and forced Sparks into a pair of saves inside the opening minute. The Marlies weren’t able to make a third power play count after a series of penalties and needed a tremendous play from Andrew Nielsen to break up a 3-on-1 rush for the Comets at the seven-minute mark.
During a spell of four-on-four action, Aaltonen beat Demko with a wicked shot but didn’t beat the crossbar.
Utica’s best chance of the period fell to Nikolay Goldobin, the recipient of a stretch pass sent off the right boards. Sparks was equal to the effort, and a second goal for the Marlies followed shortly thereafter.
After Martin Marincin broke up a zone entry by the Comets, Aaltonen, Johnsson and Grundstrom transitioned the other way and combined with a beautiful three-way passing play that was finished off by Grundstrom driving to the net.
Late in the period, Travis Dermott made a fantastic defensive play to deny a breakaway for Zak MacEwan. For some reason, the officials called Dermott for hooking, but justice was done as the Marlies killed the penalty and began the third period on a power play of their own.
Timely goals were the story of this elimination game for the Marlies, whose third strike less than a minute into the final frame was the backbreaker for Utica.
Moments after Grundstrom’s drive to the net nearly produced a hat-trick for the Swedish winger, Dermott and Johnsson played pitch and catch before the latter rifled home from the right circle with a perfectly placed shot inside the right post.
Martin Marincin struck the post and Moore also came close on a second consecutive power play, with the Marlies very much in control as the game entered the final ten minutes of play.
The Comets were never going to lie down without a fight, however, and proceeded to throw everything they had in the tank at Toronto, forcing Garret Sparks into 16 saves in the third period.
Demko was pulled for the extra attacker with five minutes remaining, and despite Pierre Engvall seeing his empty-net goal waived off for offside, Dmytro Timashov obliged on the second opportunity to secure a 4-0 victory and a ticket to the second round.
Post Game Notes
– Credit to the Utica Comets, who worked tirelessly throughout this five-game series and gave Toronto all they could handle. The Marlies will face Syracuse Crunch in the next round and will be looking for some redemption after being eliminated by Tampa’s affiliate in seven games at this stage last year.
– As per the AHL PR department, Garret Sparks is the 13th goalie AHL history to record a shutout in a winner-take-all Calder Cup Playoff game. Sparks posted 37 saves for the shutout, his second ever clean sheet in the playoffs.
“It was a real statement game for him today with the way he responded after, frankly, being outplayed on the road,” said Sheldon Keefe. “I had trust [in sticking with Sparks over Pickard] and he’s earned that all season long, in particular on home ice here.”
– Carl Grundstrom netted his second and third goals of the post-season and was a constant threat alongside Johnsson and Aaltonen.
– Andreas Johnsson made a huge impact with a three-point haul (1-2-3) and is clearly a confident player after his time in the NHL.
“It goes without saying about good a players [Dermott and Johnsson] are and the impact they make on the ice,” said Keefe. “But they are two positive people who have great energy about them and they were excited to come down and join the group. That is always something you’re concerned with — how they come down and how much they embrace it after establishing themselves as NHL players — but they were terrific and made an impact.”
– Travis Dermott replaced the injured Calle Rosen. That would be a huge blow for the Marlies, who are also without Andreas Borgman. No details are available yet on Rosen’s injury.
“It was good timing with Dermott arriving with the injury to Rosen in addition Borgman, and that was a real factor, we felt, in the series,” said Keefe. “To add him today, of all days, was very important.”
– Special teams have been an issue for Toronto through this series but they were the difference tonight: The power play connected twice on six opportunities and the penalty kill was perfect on the three occasions it was called into action.
“We wanted to make an impact early on the power play and we were able to do that,” said Keefe.
– Jeremy Bracco was a healthy scratch to allow for the inclusion of Andreas Johnsson.
– Game 5 lines: