Winning back-to-back games in Utica appeared to be a tall order after splitting Games 1 and 2 in Toronto. After the Toronto Marlies won Game 3 on the back of secondary scoring, it was the same story in Game 4.
Having survived the initial barrage, the Marlies turned up the heat in the middle frame to give themselves an unassailable lead en route to clinching a 3-1 series victory.
There was almost a dream start for Toronto 25 seconds into the game. A defensive breakdown allowed Kyle Clifford to walk in all alone on goal, but his weak backhand shot was easily stopped.
The dangerous Graeme Clarke should have opened the scoring at the two-minute mark when Toronto allowed the forward to walk into the slot from below the goal line, but Erik Källgren pulled off an excellent early save.
The Marlies sustained zone time around the five-minute mark and generated two chances for Max Ellis. Neither was taken, and that’s as close as Toronto came to opening their account.
Källgren delivered another fantastic save, this time to deny Alexander Holtz. However, he could do nothing to stop the Comets from scoring at the midway point.
A neutral zone turnover, a lost battle behind the goal line, and poor defensive coverage preceded Xavier Parent netting his third goal of the playoffs.
Utica took control for the remainder of the period and should have added to their lead. Reilly Walsh, Nolan Stevens, and Tyce Thompson had the best of the Comets’ chances, but a combination of poor finishing and excellent goaltending by Källgren kept Utica at bay.
The second-period performance was Toronto’s best of the series.
A turnover by Utica just 60 seconds in almost led to a tying goal. Nico Daws turned aside both Logan Shaw and Nick Abruzzese, but there was an immediate sense that the tide was turning.
Toronto threatened on their next power play. Another grade-A chance went begging for Clifford, while Topi Niemelä was a little unfortunate to have his shot blocked with Daws beaten.
Seconds after the penalty expired, Toronto tied the game up from an unlikely source. After some good work down low, Toronto worked the puck up to Carl Dahlström waiting at the top of the right circle. The defenceman did not waste time getting the puck to the net, and his effort appeared to take a deflection on its way in.
It was Toronto’s eighth shot without a reply as the ice was now firmly tilted. The Marlies had the Comets reeling, but could not make numerous additional chances count.
In hindsight, the turning point arrived at the midway point of the game. Toronto was guilty of a rare turnover leading to an odd-man rush, but Clarke struck iron with his effort and Källgren covered up the rebound. 30 seconds later, the Marlies struck again to take the lead.
The third line was excellent in this game at gaining the zone, and on this occasion, Alex Steeves searched for the trailing man on the play. The trailer? Matteo Pietroniro.
If Ryan Chyzowski was the unlikely hero in Game 3, Pietroniro grabbed the title in Game 4. Despite netting just once in 51 regular season games, the defenseman rocketed a shot home with the confidence of a seasoned scorer.
Riding the wave of that goal, Toronto struck for a third just 40 seconds later. Joseph Blandisi’s perfectly-weighted pass cut out three Utica players and sent Shaw in on goal.
It’s been a frustrating series overall for the captain, who appeared to release some of that into a booming shot that beat Daws clean.
Before the period buzzer sounded, there was an opportunity for Utica to respond. Back-to-back penalties provided the Comets with a pair of power plays, although their first attempt was dismal.
The second was a far better effort, and Toronto dodged a bullet when a shot by Holtz glanced off the crossbar and away to safety.
Toronto immediately created a 3-on-1 rush back at five-on-five play, but they failed to turn it into a goal. Pontus Holmberg’s effort resulted in a rebound and melee in the crease that the Marlies could not seize on.
Toronto’s play for the first five minutes of the final frame was inch-perfect. They wound down the clock without being overly negative, allowing Utica just two shots that Källgren dealt with comfortably.
It was only when Toronto got a little too cute that a few problems arose. Marshall Rifai attempted to stickhandle his way out of the slot, gifting an opportunity to Brian Halonen.
Not only did Källgren make a good save on that occasion, but he also pulled off a double stop 90 seconds later on Walsh and Robbie Russo as Utica attempted to gain a foothold in the game.
Not to be outdone, Daws performed robbery at the nine-minute mark. Steeves rounded the netminder and appeared odds-on to score only to be denied by an incredible stick save by the New Jersey prospect.
The Marlies’ casual play on a following power play was a little concerning, to say the least. Utica created three chances while shorthanded but none found their way behind the solid Källgren.
Utica opted for an extra attacker with 2:45 remaining and attempted to lay siege to the Toronto net. Källgren was unbeatable on chances for Walsh and Stevens as Utica saw their season end in sight.
The Marlies did not give up a shot in the final 71 seconds and even added a little cherry on top of the icing on the cake. Clifford finished into the empty net with two seconds left to put an exclamation mark on the victory.
A 3-1 series win for Toronto is a result that appeared unlikely after the shellacking on home ice in Game 2.
The Marlies will face the victors of the Rochester vs. Syracuse series, which will be decided Saturday evening.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto outshot Utica 23-9 in the middle frame (37-29 overall). “It was just really impressive that our guys knew what it took to step up [in the second period], tilt the ice, be really hard to play against, and drive the momentum rather than sit back and wait for it to come to us,” said Greg Moore.
– The Marlies PK units came up with a pair of important kills in this game. Utica was limited to two goals on 15 power play attempts in the series.
– Toronto played far better defensively in Game 3 and Game 4 in this series and gave Erik Källgren much better support than Keith Petruzzelli. That’s not to say Källgren didn’t perform well. The Swedish netminder came up with key saves in the second half of the first period and when Toronto held a narrow lead in the middle frame. A 28-save performance for Källgren gives him a .945 SV% through two playoff games.
– Three Marlies defensemen hit the twine in this series. Following on from Topi Niemelä, Carl Dahlström, and Matteo Pietroniro found the net in this game. As an aside, Dahlström has scored 11 goals in 236 regular season AHL games (3.4SH%). In 22 playoff outings, the Swedish blue-liner has four goals with a shooting percentage in double figures.
– Logan Shaw ended the series with a team-leading four goals. At 30 years of age and having never previously won a playoff series, there is unfinished business this postseason for the Marlies captain.
– The line of Alex Steeves, Radim Zohorna, and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev had a very strong outing. They combined for Pietroniro’s goal and created numerous other scoring chances. Zohorna has found another gear and proved a major handful with his size and strength.
– I cannot help but continue to wax lyrical about Topi Niemelä. He recorded three points in the series (1G/2A), including an assist in this game. What struck me most of all was his calm and composed persona in such an important game, especially in the third period. It’s early days, but I think the Leafs have a good one here, folks.
– One final note: Pontus Holmberg was Toronto’s standout performer in the series. He didn’t record the most points (1G/2A), but he was excellent in the faceoff dot and drove a line with less-talented linemates.
– There will be a divisional final series preview published next week, so keep an eye out for that!
– Game 4 lines:
Abruzzese – Shaw – Blandisi
Clifford – Holmberg – Johnstone
Steeves – Zohorna – Der-Arguchintsev
Chyzowski – Slaggert – Ellis
Benn – Niemelä
Rifai – Dahlström
Pietroniro – Hollowell
Post-Game Media Availability: Shaw, Pietroniro & Moore
Game 4 Highlights: Marlies 4 vs. Comets 1