Where to start?
Game 1 between the Marlies and Comets was the barnburner nobody expected.
Utica built an early three-goal lead and should have been further ahead on the scoreboard before allowing the Marlies back into the game in the second period. Toronto eventually took a narrow lead before falling victim to a late tying goal, leaving overtime to decide a dramatic first game of the North Division semifinal series.
A power play just 70 seconds into the game allowed the Marlies to dictate the early tempo. Toronto controlled the opening five minutes without reward before gifting Utica the opening goal.
A botched zone clearance by Carl Dahlström resulted in a spell of pressure for Utica in which the Marlies took a too-many-men penalty as they scrambled. On the ensuing power play, Reilly Walsh netted his third goal of the playoffs to give Utica a 1-0 lead.
There was little in the way of an immediate pushback from Toronto, and when they did manage to enter Utica’s zone, it was a case of one (shot) and done, with Daws not forced into any saves of note.
The best Toronto chance of the period was created by Marc Johnstone, whose cross-seam pass found Kyle Clifford alone in front, but a weak finishing attempt was easily stopped by Daws.
With Clifford in the box for roughing shortly after, Toronto fell further behind during four-on-four action. After the Marlies overplayed an offensive rush and an errant pass left three Toronto players above the puck, Graeme Clarke led the odd-man rush for Utica and sniped low past Keith Petruzzelli.
Toronto’s netminder may have been beaten twice, but his stellar play through the final six minutes of the period was key to ensuring the deficit wasn’t steeper. Aarne Talvitie should have scored alone from the slot, but a swift pad stop from Petruzzelli kept the score at 2-0.
On a broken play directly from a faceoff, Blandisi fired a shot from the slot directly at Daws. The wasted opportunity just 30 seconds into the middle frame looked to be costly when Toronto fell behind 3-0 shortly afterward.
The architects of their own demise again, Toronto botched one blue line clearance and two passes in the defensive zone. The result was a rebound from a point shot, which an unmarked Xavier Parent finished off to give Utica a 3-0 lead with just 22 minutes played.
The Comets should have put the game to bed in the following minutes, including striking the post twice. Petruzzelli also produced a stunning glove save to rob Parent of a second goal in as many minutes as Toronto stumbled around like a punch-drunk boxer.
Pontus Holmberg, one of the few bright spots for the Marlies at this point of the game, took control with a solo effort in which he beat two defenders. The Swedish forward’s low shot produced a huge rebound that none of his teammates were able to capitalize on.
Holmberg then got Toronto on the board just before the six-minute mark thanks to some generous defending from the Comets. A weak shot from Clifford was easily dealt with by Daws, but he didn’t steer the rebound away to safety. Instead, Johnstone picked up possession at the side of the net and slid a cross-seam pass for the open Holmberg to score on.
It took Toronto all of 77 seconds to strike again. A disjointed breakout play by the Marlies appeared to disorient Utica, who dropped too deep toward their own net, allowing Nick Abruzzese to find Topi Niemelä joining the play as the trailing man. The rookie defenseman showed remarkable composure to settle down the bouncing puck before rifling a shot into the roof of the net.
Utica seemed stunned by the two-goal quick strike, and the momentum was now all Toronto’s.
Holmberg almost tied the game up with seven minutes remaining. After taking a pass from Johnstone, the Swede sliced through the Comets’ defense and sent a backhand shot that drew a good save out of Daws. Holmberg teed up Johnstone on the same shift before the latter drew a penalty.
Toronto then found the tying goal on the subsequent man advantage. A trademark Logan Shaw one-time slapshot from the left circle made it a brand-new hockey game entering the final frame.
Neither team could convert on power-play opportunities in the first 10 minutes, but the Marlies were generating the better scoring chances.
Ryan Chyzowski was denied during a partial breakaway after good work from Matteo Pietroniro to send him free. Alex Steeves flashed nice hands as he deked his way into the slot, but he was turned aside on the initial shot and rebound.
At the other end, Utica re-established their lead thanks to poor own-zone play from Toronto. Mac Hollowell was slack behind the goal line and was stripped of possession before the Comets worked the puck back to the point. Walsh was not properly closed down by Chyzowski, and the puck took a wicked deflection off the Marlies forward, leaving Petruzzelli helpless as he watched the shot go into the opposite side of his net.
The Marlies restarted the game with their top forward line and found a response within 35 seconds. Blandisi and Shaw combined, with the latter netting his second goal of the game from close range.
If the game wasn’t chaotic enough already, Toronto took the lead for the first time less than a minute later when Semyon Der-Arguchintsev won an offensive-zone draw and the puck was worked back to Hollowell, whose shot from the point was blocked. Steeves did a great job of keeping the play alive with a poke back to Pietroniro, who found SDA lurking above the hash marks.
The diminutive forward spun, shot, and scored with Daws unsighted as Radim Zohorna used his size to good effect in front of the net.
Now leading 5-4, Toronto needed to see out the final 7:19 to secure a Game 1 victory.
Utica threw caution to the wind with two minutes remaining, pulling Daws for an extra attacker. Toronto was ultimately too passive at 6-on-5 and conceded a goal with 52 seconds remaining.
After two huge shot blocks, Dahlström was guilty of not closing down Alexander Holtz, whose shot from the left circle took a deflection off the leg of the Swedish defenceman.
Petruzzelli was again left helpless and frustrated as the Comets forced overtime.
There wasn’t a dull moment in the extra frame. The two teams went for the jugular and traded spells of pressure only to be denied by some stellar goaltending at both ends.
The 24th shot of the period with 1:25 remaining finally brought an end to a thrilling Game 1.
Shaw shot from a bad angle on the right wing, looking to create a rebound for a linemate. Utica seized on the loose puck and attempted to transition back the other way, but Shaw checked back like a man possessed and stripped Talvitie of the puck before sending Blandisi away down the left wing.
With Shaw and Blandisi both storming toward the goal, Utica backed off the pair of Toronto forwards, allowing the latter to pick the top corner of Daws’ net with an inch-perfect shot.
Cue pandemonium in the stands and celebrations on the ice as Toronto stole a game they should have lost. The Marlies will have to improve on this performance if they are to take a 2-0 series lead on Saturday.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies are now 10-2 all-time in the first game of the playoffs.
– It was an all-action performance from Joseph Blandisi. His overtime winner was his second game-winning goal in the playoffs. His first was also against Utica in 2016 while a member of the Albany Devils. Blandisi did take an undisciplined penalty for roughing, but he added a pair of assists for a three-point haul.
– Logan Shaw had appeared in just seven playoff games before this encounter, registering a pair of assists. The veteran forward is looking to make up for lost time and led the way with a pair of goals and a key assist in overtime. It was a captain’s performance that reminded me a little bit of Ben Smith in 2018.
“A star performance,” said Greg Moore. “Our captain has done it all season. To get the two big goals that he had, and that effort at that time in the period to work back, strip the puck, and then be the driver on the goal, was really impressive. It’s why he is our leader.”
– He may have only recorded a single point (1G), but Pontus Holmberg is my choice for player of the game. Utica simply could not handle him as the Swedish centerman terrorized them on every shift. Marc Johnstone complemented him to a degree from the right wing, but he’s not a proven scorer at this level and wasn’t always on the same wavelength offensively. Meanwhile, Kyle Clifford was the weak link of the trio, and I question the decision to keep him so high in the lineup. Holmberg carried the line and looked very much back to his early-season form.
“I thought Holmberg, Johnstone, and Clifford were our drivers,” said Moore. “They were absolutely awesome. Really hard to play against. They played really direct and a brand of hockey that is much-needed in the playoffs. Those guys brought a lot of momentum for us.”
– This wasn’t a good game to be a goaltender, but Keith Petruzzelli performed admirably in the circumstances. He turned aside 40 of 45 shots, but more importantly, he came up with some big saves when Utica threatened to put the game away completely.
“Similar to our team, we hadn’t played in a long time, so it took [Petruzzelli] a little bit to get a look and feel into it,” said Moore. “To go down the way we did at 3-0 and to stay in it, that is what he has done all season. He has a great mindset as a goalie. He is really consistent and doesn’t let a lot rattle him. He is the perfect personality to have in net.”
– The game included first-career AHL playoff goals for Topi Niemelä, Holmberg, and Seymon Der-Arguchintsev as well as first-career AHL assists for Nick Abruzzese (x2) and Alex Steeves.
– Game 1 lines:
Abruzzese – Shaw – Blandisi
Clifford – Holmberg – Johnstone
Steeves – Zohorna – Der-Arguchintsev
Cruikshank – Slaggert – Chyzowski
Benn – Niemelä
Rifai – Dahlström
Pietroniro – Hollowell