The Toronto Marlies got off to a fantastic start against the league-leading Charlotte Checkers before making life difficult for themselves after a dominant first period.
“In our games since coming back from Christmas here, we’ve had three excellent first periods and after that, we’ve laid an egg,” said Sheldon Keefe. “That’s why we lost the previous two and the games got away on us. We were lucky to build enough of a lead to get ourselves to overtime, but we’ve got to find a way to build on more than 20 minutes.”
The Marlies‘ fragile confidence almost took an early blow, but Michael Hutchinson was a calming presence in his debut, denying Julien Gauthier from scoring on a drive to the net off the left wing. Seconds later, Toronto opened the scoring.
Carl Grundstrom redirected the puck to Sam Gagner waiting on the red line, where the veteran forward made Charlotte defenseman Jake Bean look silly as he chipped the puck by the rookie, creating his own breakaway and scoring in alone on Alex Nedeljkovic.
Hutchinson produced his best stop of the period to glove a shot from Nick Schilkey after a missed assignment allowed the Charlotte forward to escape into the slot.
For a second time, Toronto produced the goods at the other end for their netminder as Steve Oleksy rifled home a one-time shot from the top of the left circle on a feed from Jeremy Bracco to double the lead.
The Marlies’ penalty kill stood up to its first test of the game before the power play converted on a 5-on-3 opportunity. Chris Mueller provided the finish on a cross-crease feed from Bracco as the Marlies surged out to a 3-0 lead, chasing Nedeljkovic from the crease and bringing Scott Darling into the game.
The three-goal advantage lasted less than a minute, though, as Charlotte scored while still shorthanded. A sloppy offensive zone entry was followed by Adams Brooks losing a footrace Saku Maenalanen, who put his team on the board with a nice deke to outwit Hutchinson.
Unfazed by conceding the 3-1 goal, Toronto responded 55 seconds later through Michael Carcone, who finished from low in the left circle on a pass from Dmytro Timashov just as the last penalty expired.
From the moment the puck dropped for the middle frame, the Checkers dictated the majority of the play. They recorded six shots without reply to begin the second period, with the Marlies firmly on the back foot and floundering inside their own zone.
The Marlies‘ opportunities were fleeting — the best of the bunch fell to Josh Jooris, Timashov and Gagner — and the lone goal of the period came courtesy of a former Marlie.
Greg McKegg made no mistake from the slot, beating Hutchinson glove side after getting on the right end of a pass from Aleksi Saarela that was deflected by a Marlie stick into his path.
Still holding a 4-2 lead with 20 minutes left to play, Toronto never really looked likely to build on their advantage and wound up holding on for dear life just to force overtime.
The one chance created by the Marlies came courtesy of Vincent LoVerde, who fired a shot into traffic, picked up his own rebound, and forced a miraculous left pad sprawling save from Darling. Otherwise, it was incessant pressure from Charlotte, who were feasting on far too many Marlies turnovers and winning just about every puck battle.
The Checkers were rewarded for their hard work with a fortuitous third goal: A shot rebounded off the end boards and right into the wheelhouse of Zach Nastasiuk, who scored his first of the year.
Hutchinson denied Charlotte a tying goal with eight minutes remaining by producing a remarkable diving save to his right to rob Checkers captain Patrick Brown on a wraparound attempt.
The Marlies then finally hemmed Charlotte in their zone for a short spell, but neither Grundstrom or Gagner were able to finish in front of the net.
Instead, Charlotte tied the game up with 6:16 remaining when McKegg netted his second of the game with a play directly off a faceoff during 4-on-4 action.
Charlotte remained the far likelier team to win the game in regulation, and in the circumstances, the Marlies did well to hold on for overtime.
There was a certain inevitability that if the Marlies were going to win in extra time, it would be Chris Mueller playing hero, having already scored the game-winner on three previous occasions this season. After driving down the left wing and cutting inside on Nicolas Roy into the slot, just as Brown was about to deliver a crushing hit, the veteran forward sent a dart past the glove of Darling to secure a valuable extra point for his team.
Post Games Notes
– The Marlies improved to 15-13-5 and are 6-5 in games decided in overtime or the shootout this season.
– Jeremy Bracco recorded three assists to give him 30 points (7-23-30) in 32 games.
– Chris Mueller scored his second OT winner of the season and also recorded his fourth two-goal game of the season. He continues to lead the Marlies in scoring with 34 points (16-18-34) in 31 games.
– The other Marlies to record multi-point hauls were Sam Gagner (1-1-2), Dmytro Timashov (0-2-2), and Carl Grundstrom (0-2-2).
– Steve Oleksy’s goal was his first for the Marlies and of the year. He also fought Derek Sheppard during the opening the period in what was a spirited bout.
“I like the fact that our defense — Lablanc, Jardine, and Oleksy since arriving here — have done a good job in filling in,” said Keefe.
– Michael Hutchinson posted 31 saves for a win on debut. He certainly gave his teammates a confidence boost with several key saves in a game that Toronto could easily have lost despite twice holding a commanding lead.
“The easy saves he made look easy, I thought, and obviously that’s a great team with a lot of offense and we knew they were going to come,” said Keefe. “They had some good looks on their goals.”
– Last but not least, I wish you and your loved ones a very Happy New Year from everyone at Maple Leafs Hot Stove. On a personal note, it’s been a fun past 12 months covering the Marlies and I thank you for your continued support.
– Monday’s lines: