The Toronto Marlies returned to their winning ways on Friday night, relying heavily on a standout performance by Michael Hutchinson to earn two points on the road.
The Marlies‘ magic number for playoff qualification is now down to eight. Sitting in third place, they remain seven points clear of both Cleveland and Belleville.
The Utica Comets — entering the night knowing they need to run the table for the remainder of the season to give themselves any chance of qualifying for the post-season — got off to a fast start to the game, with Hutchinson forced into four good saves inside the opening 3:30 of play.
Even Toronto’s first power play of the game shortly after failed to halt the Comets’ momentum as a mistake from debutant Colt Conrad resulted in a fantastic shorthanded chance for Brendan Gaunce, who was stonewalled by Hutchinson and went on to make 10 saves through the opening frame to ensure the game was scoreless at the first intermission.
Utica began the second period in similar fashion, with Tom Pyatt striking the iron moments after drawing a penalty 15 seconds in. The Comets were not able to capitalize with the extra man and took a penalty themselves within 10 seconds of even strength play resuming.
Once again, the Comets constructed a shorthanded opportunity for themselves thanks to a turnover by Rasmus Sandin, but Gaunce couldn’t beat Hutchinson on a breakaway. Pyatt was the next to be sent in alone on Hutchinson, but the Toronto netminder came to his team’s rescue for the umpteenth time.
Against the run of play, Toronto then opened the scoring via the power play, where Jeremy Bracco fired a shot from the top of the right circle that found a way past Michael Leighton, with Chris Mueller on hand in case the puck failed to cross the goal line.
The Marlies enjoyed a spell of possession following the goal and nearly doubled their lead if not for Frank Corrado’s shot striking the post and bouncing away to safety.
Utica restored their edge in the proceedings, however, and continued to push for a tying goal. Sandin, lacking his usual poise in possession in this game, made another mistake resulting in a shorthanded scoring chance for Brendan Woods, but Hutchinson still couldn’t be beaten as Toronto clung to a 1-0 lead through 40 minutes of play.
The Marlies broke the game wide open less than four minutes into the final frame with a pair of goals inside 14 seconds.
A zone entry by Nicholas Baptiste was followed up by excellent work from Tanner MacMaster to retain possession behind the net before sending the puck back up to the point, where Sandin’s effort towards the net deflected off the stick of Conrad for a goal in his professional debut.
Some lackadaisical play from Utica was then punished by Toronto, with Pierre Engvall the architect as he stripped the puck in the left circle. The Swedish forward sent the puck back up the wall to Michael Carcone, who ripped a one-time shot up and over the shoulder of Leighton and into the net, with the goaltender taken a little by surprise by the quick release.
It took the Comets just two minutes to strike back, albeit with a helping hand from the defensive pairing of Sandin and Jordan Subban, who both missed assignments. Hutchinson pulled off yet another good stop to deny Woods but he could do nothing about Seamus Malone sweeping home the rebound on Utica’s 30th shot of the game.
Toronto had the perfect opportunity to manufacture a quick riposte, but MacMaster was turned aside on consecutive chances — the first was a breakaway orchestrated by Conrad that led to a penalty shot. For the second time this season, MacMaster couldn’t convert on the solo attempt, but it was all academic in the end.
The Marlies went on to waste two more power plays — winding down the clock if nothing else — before the Comets went for broke by pulling Leighton with 2:45 remaining. That ultimately resulted in Mueller taking a penalty and a 6-on-4 opportunity for Utica, but the Marlies capitalized with the net empty after Baptiste intercepted a pass in the defensive zone and scored from just inside his own blue line.
The Comets scored with the two extra men through Matt Petgrave’s first of the season, although it made little difference as there were only 62 seconds remaining at that stage and Dmytro Timashov’s empty-net goal sealed a 5-2 victory for the Marlies.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto has now won seven of their last eight on their travels and improved their road record to 21-9-5. The Marlies are 3-2-0 against Utica this season with just one game left in the season series.
– Jeremy Bracco recorded his 20th goal of the season and set a new Toronto Marlies single-season franchise record with 73 points in a 76-game season in the process. The record was formerly held by TJ Brennan (2013-14).
– Michael Hutchinson stopped 37 of 39 shots and was undoubtedly Toronto’s first-star performer in this game. He’s now 14-4-3 for the Marlies with a .914 SV%.
– Colt Conrad showed some nice offensive flashes on his debut and grew with confidence throughout the game, culminating in a goal. It’s worth noting that Sheldon Keefe entrusted the forward with some power play time, although it almost backfired after a turnover led to a shorthanded breakaway.
“I thought he made some real nice plays,” said Sheldon Keefe. “He showed a high skill level.”
– Andreas Borgman and Frank Corrado both returned to action, while Calle Rosen took part in his second game back from injury.
– Friday’s lines: