“This was a really disappointing game for us. Right now, there are too many guys that aren’t showing up. We certainly need to talk to some players that need to find more consistency in their compete and their willingness to play right now.” 

It’s a Greg Moore quote that certainly reads as though the Toronto Marlies‘ level of play heading into the playoffs is of real concern to the coaching staff despite some notable lineup absences. 

First Period

Whatever the circumstances, good teams are supposed to raise their level of performance when a rookie goaltender makes a debut appearance. Not the Toronto Marlies in this game. They completely hung Dennis Hildeby out to dry.

Despite the 21-year-old Swedish netminder — a fourth-round pick of the organization in 2022 — impressing in his first start in North America, he was only able to contain the Comets on his own for 20 minutes.

Toronto’s limited scoring chances in the game were largely generated inside the first 11 minutes. Nick Abruzzese seized on a loose puck following a Utica misplay and teed up Logan Shaw in the left circle, but Toronto’s captain took too long to get a shot off and his effort was comfortably stopped.

The Marlies‘ penalty kill almost broke the deadlock when Shaw forced Nico Daws into his best save of the game from the slot. Further efforts by Marc Johnstone and Filip Král were also turned aside by the Utica netminder.

Barring those fleeting moments for the Marlies, Utica completely dominated the opening frame. Hildeby produced save after save, none better than a trio of consecutive stops he made just before the nine-minute mark.

The saves kept coming from the Swedish netminder, who denied Nolan Steeves following a mistake by Jordie Benn, turned aside the same player on a breakaway, and robbed Zack Hayes and Aarne Talvitie with consecutive saves in tight.

Utica finally broke the deadlock inside the final two minutes through Jeremy Groleau, whose effort appeared to take a deflection on the way in.

Second Period

After Radim Zohorna fired wide on a partial breakaway to begin the frame, the game slipped away from Toronto.

Utica struck inside five minutes as they carved the Marlies apart with a swift passing movement and Nolan Stevens netted his 13th goal of the campaign.

It took a while for the Comets to add to their lead, but they eventually netted twice in the final three minutes.

Toronto’s penalty kill was cut to shreds, and Reilly Walsh only needed to hit the target to score.

The Marlies’ performance was best summed up by their lackadaisical play on the fourth goal leading to Utica’s 2-on-1 break. The impressive Graeme Clarke scored his 24th goal of the season to further pad the Comets’ lead.

Third Period

The less said about the third period, the better. I expected some kind of response from Toronto after a thorough embarrassment for 40 minutes, but none was forthcoming.

The Marlies registered just four shots on net as Utica cruised to victory and goaltender Nico Daws earned a comfortable 20-save shutout.

The period meandered to a close, with the result already determined and Utica saving their energy for upcoming games. Joe Gambardella should have scored on two Grade-A scoring chances before the Comets scored for a fifth and final time through Stevens.

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies have been shut out in four of their last 10 games.

– It was a 37-save debut performance by Dennis Hildeby, who deserves huge credit for performing so admirably in difficult circumstances. Of the five goals allowed, he might be disappointed with the first, but you could not lay any of the others at his feet.

Hildeby’s positioning looked solid and his ability to make recovery saves was hugely impressive. I would not be adverse to him receiving another start in the final week of the season to see how he fares behind a hopefully better performance in front of him.

Topi Niemelä didn’t let the team’s overall effort drag him down. The rookie remained poised in possession whether carrying the puck himself or executing breakout passes. Admittedly, it’s of little solace after a horrific loss, but it impressed me for a player so young. There have been incredibly encouraging signs so far from the Finnish defenseman, who I hope will be entrusted with minutes in the playoffs.

Carl Dahlström missed the game with an upper-body injury and is considered day-to-day.

– Friday’s lines:

Abruzzese- Shaw – Johnstone
Clifford – Holmberg – Der-Arguchintsev
Slaggert – Zohorna – Steeves
Cruikshank – Badini – Solow

Benn – Miller
Hoefenmayer – Niemelä
Král – Pietroniro


Game Highlights: Comets 5 vs. Marlies 0