The intensity of this matchup between the top two teams in the Noth Division made for as close to a playoff-type game as we’ve seen this season.
Ultimately, the difference was the play of Erik Källgren and Toronto winning the special teams battle.
The opening frame was a tale of two halves. Toronto will feel they should have held a lead through the first 10 minutes, but a lack of clinical finishing let them down.
At the four-minute mark, Joseph Blandisi led a 2-on-1 break and delivered a perfect pass to Alex Steeves on his right. Out of character, the latter failed to generate much power on his shot with the goal at his mercy, and Akira Schmid was able to make a comfortable save.
Blandisi then escaped on a breakaway at the midway mark and drew a penalty shot. His effort beat the glove hand of Schmid but was a smidge too high, clipping the top of the crossbar.
That miss seemed to catalyze the Comets, who drew the game’s first power play and outshot Toronto 6-0 in the following five minutes.
The Marlies killed the penalty and responded by scoring on their first power play. After taking a pass from Logan Shaw, Bobby McMann — a real threat in the bumper position on the man advantage — spun and shot in one move to break the deadlock.
Toronto almost doubled its lead from the restart of play. The fourth line carried over the momentum at five-on-five and almost found a 2-0 goal. Marc Johnstone forced a good save out of Schmid from close range.
Utica finished the period strongly, and Erik Källgren made a good save on Tyce Thompson’s point-blank range attempt.
The second period was fantastic entertainment with a playoff quality to the pace of play. There were very few whistles, the hits were bone-shattering, and both teams traded spells of pressure.
The Comets owned the opening 45 seconds in which Källgren made two excellent saves on Tyler Wotherspoon. Toronto responded in kind with a tremendous shift where they kept the puck in the Comets’ zone for a full two minutes.
The Marlies recorded 10 shots in nine minutes, although they mostly came from the perimeter. A combination of good goaltending from Schmid and strong net-front defense from the Comets meant that Schmid’s only save of note came on Dryden Hunt from the slot.
Utica was the better team in the second half of the period as the ice began to tilt one way. Toronto didn’t help their cause with giveaways in the neutral and defensive zones.
Källgren turned aside 11 consecutive shots before he was finally solved inside the final two minutes of the period.
Mason Geertsen connected cleanly on a slapshot low in the left circle, and the puck found its way through traffic and into the net off the iron from a tight angle.
Utica continued to exert their dominance early in the final frame, forcing Källgren to make another pair of great saves on Graeme Clarke and Nolan Foote as the Comets threatened to take control of the game.
Toronto survived the early onslaught and killed a penalty before finally establishing a foothold around the eight-minute mark.
Schmid had to be sharp after a quiet spell to begin the third period, coming up with two good saves on Hunt. However, a third time proved the charm for the Marlies‘ forward.
Robbie Russo’s attempted breakout pass was picked off by an excellent read from William Villeneuve, who wasn’t rewarded with a point on the play.
Blandisi received the puck from the rookie defenseman and found Steeves waiting with a backdoor feed. Unable to control the pass initially, Steeves circled back up to the blue line before sending a pass across to the left circle. Hunt evaded the Utica defense and produced a classy short-side, bar-down finish to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.
The Marlies were unable to find an insurance marker to make certain of the two points. A second power play passed without much to note, and Adam Gaudette failed to hit the target on a breakaway attempt with three minutes remaining.
The Comets didn’t threaten Toronto’s lead until they opted for the extra attacker with 2:30 remaining in regulation. Nolan Foote and Andreas Johnsson both tested Källgren, who lost his stick during a flurry of action around his crease. The Comets also struck the iron, although Källgren looked to have it covered at his near post.
McMann drew a penalty inside the final minute to ensure Toronto saw out the final seconds and secured a hard-fought victory.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto owns the best power play on home ice this season at 31.4%. It struck once on three attempts, while the penalty kill went a perfect three-for-three.
– Erik Källgren has found his groove. Building upon a 42-save performance in the overtime loss to Charlotte, the Swedish netminder turned aside 45 shots to record a first win since January 25.
“It’s nice to show what I can do,” said Källgren. “I know that I can play at a high level, so it feels good to get to show it here.”
“He looked really good,” added Greg Moore. “In practice, he looked really sharp. It carried into the game. We needed him to make some big saves. Any team that finds ways to win needs that. A really big game from him, and something to build confidence from.”
– Joseph Blandisi hit a couple of minor career milestones at the AHL level. With the secondary helper on the game-winner, Blandisi hit 20 assists for the first time. It was also Blandisi’s 30th point, beating his previous single-season point tally set last year.
– Alex Steeves (3G/3A) and Dryden Hunt (3G/2A) extended their respective point streaks to five games. Hunt has slowly but surely begun to find his feet, and this was his best performance so far with the Marlies. Steeves is now reaping the scoreboard rewards for consistently good performances.
– Some players can struggle after reassignment to the AHL following their first NHL stint. Not Bobby McMann, who appears to have gained a step from his experience. He scored his fourth goal in six games since rejoining the Marlies and drew a late penalty to help Toronto see out the game.
– Wednesday’s lines:
McMann – Shaw – Abruzzese
Hunt – Blandisi – Steeves
Clifford – Abramov – Gaudette
Chyzowski – Slaggert – Johnstone
Rifai – Miller
Hoefenmayer – Villeneuve
Kokkonen – Pietroniro