“[Utica] came out ready. They were hungry. They threw some pucks on net and were able to capitalize. The only time that we started to go a little bit was in the third, but by then, it was too late.”

– John Gruden

With every point so critical for the Toronto Marlies at this stage of the season, a no-show versus another desperate team is unacceptable. For their part, Utica was clinical on their chances, cleaned up their mistakes from Saturday’s defeat, and outworked Toronto with an aggressive brand of play.

First Period

A regulation victory against Utica would have opened up an eight-point gap, eliminating the Comets as a playoff rival. It appeared the Comets were more cognizant of that fact than the Marlies, who were casual in the opening shifts of the game.

Toronto out-shot Utica 7-6 through the opening 20 minutes, but four of those shots were dump-ins toward the net in the hopes of forcing an offensive-zone face-off.

The Marlies fell behind at the five-minute mark when a sloppy defensive zone shift exemplified their performance. Several failures to clear the zone resulted in Justin Dowling sending in a back-hand shot that clipped the far post. Max Willman beat William Villeneuve to the loose puck to give Utica the early lead they craved.

The fourth line responded with a high-energy shift and drew a penalty, but Toronto’s power play was lethargic when faced with an aggressive penalty kill and could hardly enter the zone.

Utica doubled their lead with nine minutes remaining with a goal that showcased their superior work ethic. Ryan Schmelzer won a faceoff back to Kyle Criscuolo, who nudged the puck quickly to Xavier Parent to score with a one-time shot as Mikko Kokkonen couldn’t quite get out into the shooting lane.

Toronto wasted a second power play and should have conceded again before the intermission. With 90 seconds remaining, Matteo Pietroniro’s giveaway resulted in a fantastic chance for Dowling, but his effort struck the post.

Second Period

A questionable hit by Pietroniro put Toronto on the back foot early in the middle frame. The replay was inconclusive as to whether the contact was head or shoulder first, but either way, the officials assessed him for five minutes for charging and fighting in the brawl that ensued.

The outcome was two minutes of four-on-four action followed by a three-minute power play for Utica. After Dowling netted with the man advantage, Toronto was staring down the barrel of a three-goal deficit.

The Marlies attempted to physically engage to establish themselves in the game, but it didn’t go anywhere, resulting in another infraction.

A switching up of the lines generated something resembling consecutive positive shifts and resulted in a single scoring chance. A stretch pass sent Nick Abruzzese down the left side, where Logan Shaw joined the rush on the opposite wing and was wide open, but Abruzzese’s pass was off the mark.

To wrap up the two points, Utica scored a deserved fourth goal late in the frame. A poor breakout pass by Toronto came back down their throats, albeit it was still 3v3 in the Marlies‘ zone. John Gruden’s sullen face on the bench said it all as Ryan Fitzgerald scored on the rebound after Cavallin denied Filip Engaras with a pad save.

Third Period

The combination of a stern talking in the home locker room and Utica taking their foot off the gas slightly resulted in Toronto building a small head of steam early in the third period.

Although two further power plays weren’t converted, there were positive signs. Jacob Quillan was certainly noticeable, and it was a little unfortunate that he didn’t record his first professional point. He generated two chances and forced Daws into a good save.

Josiah Slavin and Matthew Barbolini squandered a 2v1 opportunity at the five-minute mark. Neither took control of the situation, and the chance passed them by.

A rare Comets mistake 60 seconds later ended Daws’ shutout bid. Joseph Blandisi won a battle for possession at the Utica blue line, and after a give-and-go and Dylan Gambrell, Blandisi roofed the puck into the net.

That’s as good as it got for Toronto, who didn’t dent Utica’s three-goal lead despite creating some good looks. Nathan Légaré scored an empty-net goal to rub salt into the wound as the Comets kept their playoff aspirations alive.

Post Game Notes

–  Despite this loss, the Marlies won the season series against Utica with a 4-1-1 record. 

–  There is no time for the Marlies to feel sorry for themselves. A Wednesday night tilt against Belleville will go a long way to determining the fate of the campaign for both teams. Just three points separates Toronto in fourth from the Senators in sixth (both have played the same number of games).

–  Joseph Blandisi scored his 25th goal of the campaign, extending his point streak to four games (4G/4A). It’s been a remarkable season for the veteran forward, especially given that he’s sustained an almost 20% shooting percentage.

– Sunday’s lineup vs. Utica:

Hirvonen – Shaw – Abruzzese
Steeves – Gambrell – Solow
Blandisi – Quillan – Mastrosimone
Barbolini – Slavin – Singleton

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai – Villeneuve
Pietroniro – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Gambrell & Gruden