Desire, drive and determination.
Three elements that the home team Utica Comets had in spades but Toronto left behind them when crossing the border.
The Comets simply out-worked the Marlies in what was an uncharacteristic and unacceptable performance from the league leaders.
Chasing down a playoff berth with the energy of a team playing in a crucial post-season game, Utica roared out of the gates, netting early and taking a deserved two goal lead after twenty minutes.
The first save either goaltender had to make wasn’t until almost the two minute mark as Antoine Bibeau held onto the opening shot on net. He would have no chance on the second however.
A pair of slashing penalties led to four on four hockey and Utica just flat-out harried Toronto, who were caught napping and puck watching.
Crossing the blue line with speed on the left wing, Alex Friesen skated around Stuart Percy with ease and looked up to see Alexandre Grenier in support.
Neither of the two trailing Marlies player would get near him and after receiving a perfect pass, Grenier loaded up a wrist shot that beat Bibeau all ends up. The assist snapped a nine game pointless streak for Friesen, who has enjoyed himself when facing Toronto this season.
The officiating was certainly interesting with a three man crew and Terry Koharski at the helm.
T.J Brennan wasn’t a fan as there was no call forthcoming after he was wiped out by Grenier. That play led to the Utica forward getting a partial breakaway chance shortly afterwards but Bibeau made a huge save to deny him a second goal inside seven minutes.
The Marlies responded with a fine shift from Frederick Gauthier’s line with his new right winger Eric Faille testing Joe Cannata in net as Toronto pinned Utica in their own zone for the only time when the game was in the balance.
A huge mid-ice hit from Sam Carrick sent Utica to the power play but Toronto survived with ease thanks to a pair of steady saves from Bibeau.
Justin Holl should have done better when presented with a chance in tight and his frustration only grew after being smashed by two Comets up against the boards after the play had been whistled down.
The consistency from the officials was lacking but Toronto could have no qualms about that when all was said and done.
A turnover from Matt Frattin on the next shift presented Utica with the puck in a dangerous position.
The hosts would fail to score on the first and second great opportunities but Ronalds Kenins could not fail to miss on the third. Found alone out in front by Alex Negrin, the Latvian forward smashed home from just above the blue paint.
The Marlies weren’t without chances before twenty minutes were up as Utica dipped in performance towards the end of the opening period. A shot from Carrick on a partial breakaway snuck behind Cannata but the desire of the defensemen to help out their goaltender meant no second chance for a Marlies player.
Toronto’s first power play saw Colin Smith fire wide on a gilt edge chance and then Cannata stood tall to rob Connor Brown. The Marlies would earn a second straight man advantage but an undisciplined penalty from Findlay quickly allayed that.
The first five minutes of the second period would have had both coaches pulling their hair out as the teams shared chances on the rush.
Utica finding the iron twice, Faille and Clune almost combining for what would have been a nice tally while Cannata denied Brown once again.
Looking to make amends for the second goal, Frattin orchestrated a partial breakaway but was impeded when releasing his shot on net. No call was forthcoming despite his protestations to the officials.
Next to be miffed by the officials was Bibeau. Coming out to play the puck behind his own net, he was wiped out by a sliding Utica forward and fell ungainly after being sent up into the air. Fortunately no damage was done but a staggering non call once again.
Utica began to reassert themselves after the play had settled down with Toronto only creating chances after surviving sustained pressure in their own zone.
Carrick, Faille and Holl all had chances on the rush but they were opportunities against the flow of play. Utica were guilty of not making Toronto pay for multiple turnovers inside their own zone or just outside, but the final killer pass was lacking for the Comets.
The straw that broke the camels back finally arrived with just over five minutes of the second period remaining.
Toronto contrived to mess up a three on one break, not even forcing Cannata into a save in an excruciating and frustrating play to watch. You can bet Sheldon Keefe will have that highlighted in the video room.
An odd-man rush back the other way wasn’t long in coming and Toronto backed off Darren Archibald too far, allowing him to fire home and extend the lead to three.
We’ve seen many a fine comeback this season but it was never on the cards at any stage, as Utica continued to hassle Toronto early in the third period.
Forced into a save inside the first few seconds, a beleaguered looking Bibeau came to the rescue again after a turnover from Rinat Valiev led to a 2-on-1 rush.
A power play for the Marlies presented a way back into the game but it was a poor effort as they failed to even set-up in the Comets zone as every clearance from Utica was cheered like a goal by the fervent home fans. The playoff like atmosphere in the building was immense and the home team were certainly feeding off it, no-one more than Cannata between the pipes. Toronto drew their fourth and final power play with around twelve minutes to play and a couple of long range shots from T.J Brennan produced rebounds elusive to his team-mates. A mad scramble with seconds left on the man advantage, saw Cannata make one huge save from Findlay and a couple of others. The crowd stood to applaud their goaltender as the prospect of two important points drew ever closer.
The inevitable fourth goal came for the home team and it was all too easy for them.
Pedan able to shoot from long range without any pressure and a tip from Friesen standing alone in the slot produced a fine save from Bibeau. Archibald easily beat the defense to the loose rebound and a 4-0 lead was no more than Utica deserved at this point.
A late flurry of action meant Cannata would have to make 33 saves for his shutout but in all honesty that number flattered him a little, in what was a very solid performance without having to stand on his head.
A lacklustre showing from Toronto that Sheldon Keefe will either bin and forget about or beat his team with like a stick when this weekend is done with.
Either way the best thing is there’s a chance for redemption immediately with a game in Rochester Saturday night. Toronto will be up against an Amerks team who won big Friday evening with their newest recruits all producing in the victory.
Post Games Notes:
It took 58 games to happen, but this was the first time the Toronto Marlies have been shutout this season.
The line of Clune-Gauthier-Faille was the best on show for the most part and Faille led all shooters with six shots on net.
Statistics often lie and they certainly don’t accurately reflect the performance of Antoine Bibeau who was not accountable in any shape or form for this defeat.
Stopped just 24 of 28 shots but the score line could so easily have been six or seven.
Despite the officiating, Toronto still had four of the seven power plays awarded but failed to take advantage.