The Utica Comets entered this game on the back of five straight victories to begin their 2021-22 campaign having most recently dismantled the Syracuse Crunch.

Facing a stingy Comets defense that had only allowed nine goals entering the contest, this was a big challenge in front of the Marlies on Saturday night.

First Period

Slow starts have been a sore point in Marlies games this season, but it wasn’t the case on Saturday. The Marlies matched their opponents out of the gate and recorded the first three shots of the game.

Toronto should have taken the lead at the four-minute mark when Josh Ho-Sang escaped into space behind the Utica defense, but instead of shooting from the slot, he made the wrong selection in attempting a pass to Kirill Semyonov.

90 seconds later, Utica opened the scoring with a power-play marker. Chase De Leo was credited with the goal despite the puck seemingly deflecting off of a teammate.

It took just 20 seconds for the Marlies to respond. After speed in transition created an odd-man rush, Alex Steeves opted for the pass instead of shooting and got some puck luck as it deflected off of a Utica defenseman and past Akira Schmid.

The momentum was now with the Marlies, who controlled much of the play at 5v5.

That was only halted by a run of three consecutive penalties. Joseph Duszak and Curtis Douglas should know better at this point, while Steeves was fortunate on a delay of game penalty that could have been argued either way.

The Marlies killed all penalties, including 15 seconds of a 5-on-3, and almost scored short-handed. With a little more luck in front of the net, Semyonov’s wraparound attempt might have snuck over the goal line instead of nestling into the goalie gear.

Second Period

Steeves was serving a penalty to start the middle frame, but he made an immediate impact after he stepped out of the box. The rookie pounced on a loose puck in the neutral zone and raced away alone on goal to pot his second of the game with a confident finish that belied his lack of experience at the professional level.

Disappointingly, Toronto handed the initiative back to the Comets within two minutes. Carl Dahlström coughed the puck up at his own blue line, and after A.J. Greer’s effort hit the crossbar and stayed out, Joe Gambardella swept the puck home to tie the game at two.

Utica was now fully in command as the Marlies found themselves out-chanced and out-shot. The Comets were unable to find the killer instinct in their play before a penalty swung momentum back in Toronto’s favour.

Several good looks on the Marlies’ first power play of the game were an encouraging sign, but the league’s top penalty kill unit only bent and did not break. Joey Anderson came the closest of any player on either side to break the deadlock late in the period. His shot appeared to hit both posts without crossing the goal line, but the officials chose not to review the play following the next whistle.

Third Period

The next goal was going to be the critical turning point in the game, and the Comets showed a lot more urgency about scoring it in the opening 80 seconds. Toronto survived, drew a penalty, and again failed to make the man advantage count despite spending the two minutes exclusively inside Utica’s zone.

Fittingly, it was the Comets’ league-leading power play that then generated the game-winning goal at the other end. They got a helping hand from the officials with a blatant missed call that left the Marlies furious.

Whether by design or accident, Fabian Zetterlund ran interference on Steeves as he was attempting to get in the lane of Nolan Foote’s pass reception at the point. With Steeves now out of the play, the defenseman had time to measure his effort for a decisive third Utica goal.

The wind appeared to be taken out of the Marlies’ sails as they had little to no response after falling behind. Toronto recorded only three shots on target in the final 12 minutes as their winning streak limped to an end.

Two late empty-net tallies for Utica gave the scoreline an unfairly-lopsided feel.

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies competed and showed a better defensive structure in this game, but Utica does not play at the same pace as Rochester does.

“This loss stings a bit,” said Greg Moore. “I thought our team played a really good game. I think we had three or four posts in the second period. We had another in the third. The team did a lot of good stuff. We had a great start, which we had been struggling with. The team was ready and prepared. We started to get into some penalty trouble, which is something we have talked about a lot. In games against top opponents who are undefeated, we can play with them and win hockey games, but if we are going to continue to take penalties — especially with the stick infractions — it just puts us behind a little bit.”

Alex Steeves continues to prove he’s a clinical goal scorer; a pair of goals for him in this game takes him to five in just four games. I thought Steeves’ line alongside Josh Ho-Sang and Kirill Semyonov was guilty of overplaying it in promising offensive situations at times, especially given all three players are capable of shooting the puck. That being said, they were clearly Toronto’s best forward line.

– Special teams proved to be the deciding factor in this defeat. Utica struck twice on five power plays, while Toronto came up empty on all three attempts despite some good looks.

“Probably the best looks we had all season,” said Moore. “We were really moving the puck well, finding plays on the inside, and establishing a shot. [The power play] has come a long way in the last couple of weeks, but it just didn’t go in the net today.”

– Saturday’s lines:

Seney – SDA – Anderson
Steeves – Semyonov – Ho-Sang
Michaelis – Abramov – Gabriel
McMann – Douglas – Clune

Král – Biega
Dahlström – Menell
Rubins – Duszak


Greg Moore Post Game: Comets 5 vs. Marlies 2