It’s been something of a slog this season, but the reigning Calder Cup Champions finally clinched a playoff berth with four games remaining in the AHL season after a 2-1 win over Utica on Friday.
On paper, facing a depleted Utica team in the midst of a slump should have been an easier task than it proved to be for Toronto, who struggled to find their rhythm for much of the game. The Marlies eventually found a way thanks to two heroes from last year’s championship-winning campaign in Mason Marchment and Adam Brooks.
The opening period wasn’t much to write home about, but the Marlies owned the better of the scoring opportunities.
Adam Brooks tested Michael Leighton at the three-minute mark following an interception by Nicholas Baptiste before Brooks was unable to corral a rebound at the midway mark on a shot from Mason Marchment during an odd-man rush. Jeremy Bracco should have broken the deadlock inside the final six minutes, but he whiffed on his attempt with half an empty net to aim at following a broken play in the slot.
The Marlies special teams were again excellent in this game, especially the penalty kill, which went to work early and late in the period. Toronto went down by two men for 26 seconds, but Kasimir Kaskisuo kept Utica off the board with a composed glove save on Reid Boucher.
Toronto’s PK killed the penalty carried over into the middle frame and went back to work quickly following a Marlies turnover in the offensive zone. It took until the eight-minute mark for Leighton to be tested in the Utica net, with Griffen Molino robbed at point-blank range after a series of odd bounces presented him with a gilt-edged scoring opportunity.
Consecutive power plays for the Marlies resulted in plenty of drama and eventually the first goal of the game.
First, Marek Mazanec was called into action to relive Leighton, who injured himself during an innocent-looking play and tentatively left the ice. The Comets were then gifted a breakaway following a turnover by Bracco, who presented the usually-clinical Boucher with a golden chance, but Kaskisuo bailed out Bracco to keep the game at 0-0.
Toronto’s goaltender was immediately rewarded at the other end as the Marlies scored seven seconds into the next man advantage when Marchment swept home a rebound after a shot by Michael Carcone found the right pad of Mazanec.
There were more penalties handed out to end the second period as the officials continued to make themselves the center of attention, but there was no further scoring through 40 minutes.
To Utica’s credit, they came out all guns blazing in the final frame and out-worked Toronto in the first ten minutes. A turnover at their own blue line by the Marlies was jumped on by Aaron Thow, who lobbed a pass to Brendan Woods waiting low in the right circle, where the centerman had time to catch the pass, drop the puck at his feet, and measure a shot past Kaskisuo to tie the game at the midway mark of the period.
A fight between Tom Sestito and Zack MacEwen followed the goal, spelling the end of the night for both players.
The game appeared to be meandering toward overtime until the officials again intervened with a ridiculous call inside the final three minutes, with Timothy Liljegren tabbed for tripping after a masterful hip check.
Toronto’s penalty kill came up with a huge response — after Kaskisuo made a pad save, Jordan Subban found Nicholas Baptiste on the right, where Baptiste found Brooks heading up ice with a perfect feed.
Brooks turned on the jets to cut across the last Comet back in Dylan Blujus, who hooked the Toronto forward as he was breaking in alone on goal. Brooks stuck with the play and slid the puck low by Mazanec to give the Marlies the lead with 85 seconds remaining.
Toronto remained steadfast both on the penalty kill and after Utica pulled the goalie to secure the two points and punch their ticket to the playoffs.
Post Game Notes
– For the eighth straight season, the Toronto Marlies have qualified for the playoffs.
– Toronto won four of six against Utica this season and claimed three of those victories away from home at the Memorial Auditorium. The Marlies have now accumulated more points on their travels than any other North Division team with a fourth straight road victory that improved their road record to 22-9-5 on the season.
– The Toronto penalty kill was perfect on all six occasions, including a 26-second span of 5-on-3. The Marlies have killed 34 of their last 35 penalties.
– Sheldon Keefe reached the 300-game milestone as head coach, amassing an impressive 188-86-26 record to date.
– Adam Brooks netted his second short-handed marker this season and hit the 20-goal mark in his 59th game in the process.
– Mason Marchment scored his 12th on the year in his 42nd game, surpassing his goals total last season. It’s been another truncated campaign for the left winger due to injury, but his reintroduction into the line-up is a nice offensive boost entering the playoffs.
– Kasimir Kaskisuo is now the Marlies’ anointed number-one goaltender with Michael Hutchinson’s promotion to the Leafs. It wasn’t a pretty performance at times in what was generally a scrappy game, but he made the stops required of him and it was noticeable that he was holding onto the puck more, hanging on to give an often ragged and tired-looking Marlies team in front of him a chance to reset. The Finnish netminder stopped 23 of 24 shots and improved to 11-9-4 on the year.
– Rasmus Sandin was a late scratch, with Eemeli Rasanen taking his place.
– Eamon McAdam was recalled from Newfoundland Growlers and backed up Kaskisuo.
– Friday’s lines: