After allowing an early double strike, the Toronto Marlies trailed for the majority of this game and were staring down the barrel of a fourth consecutive defeat.
Yet to win when behind after forty minutes, some of the Marlies unsung veterans helped put their team back on track and on the path to a much needed two points.
The home team began positively, as Tobias Lindberg drew a penalty 67 seconds in, but it proved a false dawn.
Justin Fontaine might have scored short-handed but for an excellent back check from Kasperi Kapanen and the power play was over before it had really begun with a weak interference call on Andreas Johnsson.
From the ensuring face-off at 4-on-4 play, John Gilmour was allowed to dance around two Marlies players in the slot and promptly scored on Garret Sparks. Making his second consecutive start, Sparks was poor in this game and really should have denied this effort after getting a huge piece of the shot.
The damage wasn’t fully done however, as Hartford increased their advantage with Johnsson still in the box.
Rinat Valiev failed to control a puck at the visitors blue line, when he might have been better suited by backing off and ensuring possession was kept.
The impressive Niklas Jensen raced away, with only a backtracking Justin Holl for company. The Wolf Pack forward cut across the Toronto man and fired an early low shot that appeared to handcuff Sparks before finding the net.
Mason Marchment would be unfortunate to be called for hooking shortly afterwards – another weak call, but this time Toronto killed the penalty with relative ease.
On a power play of their own, the Marlies came close from Johnsson and Leipsic but were unable to get the puck by Magnus Helberg.
There was little in the way of quality play from either team at even strength and action was limited until the final four minutes of the opening period.
Chris Summers almost scored a breakaway on Saturday and nearly made up for that after taking a feed down the middle of the ice. Unchallenged as he headed to the slot, his slightly unconventional backhand attempt whistled past the post as Hartford came within inches of taking a 3-0 lead.
Toronto best chance to claw their way into the game came via an impressive drive to the net from Marchment. The rookie dished off to Colin Smith but Helberg made a pad save to deny the centreman.
A fight between Andrew Nielsen and Chris Brown would occur after a melee in front of Toronto’s goal.
It was a first professional fight for Nielsen, who handled himself well all things considered.
The Marlies comeback would begin thanks to a late penalty kill and then drawing a penalty of their own to begin the middle frame with an extra man.
Just 38 seconds in Kasperi Kapanen rifled a shot from the right face-off dot, that flashed across Helberg before he could move, finding the twine much to the relief of the patrons present at Ricoh Coliseum.
Rich Clune is far from the best hockey player on this roster but he’s undoubtedly the heartbeat of this team and drives others to be better when on his game. A fantastic fore-check from Clune and line-mates Marc-Andre Cliché and Kerby Rychel, almost resulted in a slightly freaky goal but for a deflection.
Toronto were now beginning to take a hold of the game and Colin Greening really should have scored when presented a fantastic opportunity from the high slot.
Brendan Leipsic was playing in an unfamiliar position at centre but was still pulling the strings when the puck was on his stick. He would draw a tripping call and watch as his team-mates did everything but score. A booming shot from Nielsen forced a rebound and an intense scramble in front of Helberg ensued, with Kapanen unable to put home the puck granted the best chance.
It was Leipsic to the fore again, as he drew a second straight tripping penalty but Toronto failed to register a shot on goal during the 48 second, two man advantage.
Back to 5-on-4 and the tying game came thanks to a more simplistic approach to the power play.
A shot from Nielsen was brilliantly tipped by Rychel, past Helberg.
With the game tied just before the midway marker, surely it was Toronto who would kick-on with the momentum finally swung in their direction.
That wasn’t the case though as the visitors re-took the lead two minutes later.
The Marlies were caught flatfooted and Chris Brown was allowed to skate from his own zone to Toronto’s left circle. With not much in the way of support, Brown released a backhand effort from the face-off dot, a shot which hit the iron and bounced through the legs of Sparks, beating him short side.
The goaltender smashed his stick on the ice in frustration, fully aware that was another one he really should have had.
The opportunities would still present themselves for the home team to tie the game before the intermission buzzer.
Milan Michalek and Greening both wasting promising opening and a resultant power play failed to click.
With 2:30 remaining, a rush down the right from Rychel put Hartford on their heels, and the winger found Clune in front. Switching the puck from left to right, Clune had Helberg down but couldn’t quite score with his backhand, having lost full control at the final second.
A wicked shot from Johnsson resulted in a rebound right n the stick of Smith in the slot but Helberg produced a fantastic save to deny him and preserved his team’s slender advantage.
The Toronto dressing room would have been fully aware of their record when behind after two periods, so an early goal in the final frame was the perfect tonic.
There’s little doubt that Michalek is a talented offensive player but we’ve yet to seen anything near that quality of play from him.
From the left of the net, he produced a wonderful saucer pass after a sliding defenseman to find Smith in front. The pass rebounded off Smith before he could lay a stick on the puck and trickled past Helberg toward the net. Michalek made sure there was no doubt as he followed up his play by jamming the loose puck into the net for his second goal of the season.
Hartford almost immediately bounced back to re-take the lead, thanks in part to more poor goaltending from Sparks.
A bad angle shot from the left wing hit the top of the crossbar with Toronto’s goaltender scrambling, somehow having got himself out of position during an innocuous play.
Having survived that close call, the home team put their foot on the gas and look for a go-ahead marker.
Andrew Campbell is yet to score this season but came close to breaking his duck, and Helberg also turned aside Greening and Marchment.
Johnsson would draw a penalty and on the delayed portion, Marchment had Helberg beaten but was unfortunate to find iron rather than twine.
The power play failed to produce but it mattered not as back at even strength it was a goal born of simplicity that saw Toronto net the decisive seventh goal of the game.
Cliché won the face-off at the right circle, shifting the puck back to Campbell at the blue line. The Captain handed possession to Rychel at the half-wall and the California native wasted little time in throwing the puck on net.
Rich Clune had positioned himself in front as the screen and responded to the rebound, sliding the puck past a sprawling Helberg.
The celebration that followed was reminiscent of his Albany game seven winner but you couldn’t blame him for the exuberance. He’s been a healthy scratch many times this season -which has undoubtedly hurt him, and he’s bounced back with aplomb now given a chance.
The lessons of Clune are certainly not lost on Smith of Marchment. Those two battled like men possessed behind Hartford’s net to ensure Toronto retained control of the puck. That enabled Smith to find Wrenn pinching into the play. His shot produced a rebound and there was Marchment, showing desire to get to the net, almost tipping the initial shot past Helberg and then digging for a rebound which would ultimately elude him.
Toronto really needed an insurance marker and it almost came courtesy of Kapanen.
A recipient of an outlet pass, the Swedish winger used his speed to create separation within a couple of strides to ensure a breakaway. He would lose the handle on the puck at the last moment with Helberg down.
To Hartford’s credit, they refused to lie down despite coughing up two leads and produced a huge surge in the final five minutes. Firing on sight and crashing Sparks wasn’t the worst strategy and it so nearly paid dividends on a couple of occasions.
Toronto dug deep as the visitors threw on the extra attacker, but Wolf’s Pack chances took a blow with a late penalty call.
A power play-empty netter from Leipsic sealed the deal, courtesy of a smart play from Kapanen on the left boards.
It was telling that there was no real celebration from Leipsic of his team-mates after the goal. Sheer relief was etched on the faces of Toronto players, in the realisation they were finally going to record a victory this week.
Post Game Notes:
No points on the board for Marc-Andre Cliché or Mason Marchment but their play should be highlighted.
Like Clune, Cliché’s opportunities have been limited but he played a solid game, producing a veteran type performance this team is in dire need of right now.
Marchment dressed for just the second time this season and benefited greatly from playing alongside Colin Smith and Andreas Johnsson. He gave his line-mates time and space with his huge frame and was unlucky not to open his account.
Rich Clune’s goal was his first of the season and he’s made it nigh on impossible for Sheldon Keefe to scratch him now after two good performances this weekend.
A two-point game ensures Brendan Leipsic stay’s top of the AHL scoring charts, though he’s now tied with Chicago’s Brad Hunt.
Kasperi Kapanen rises to seventh in AHL scorers thanks to a three point outing. His eleventh tally of the season ties him for the lead in goals.
Slipping under the radar somewhat, Kerby Rychel had himself a three point game. He benefited greatly from playing alongside Cliché and Clune, a line which perhaps could find some legs on the upcoming road trip.
Byron Froese was an injury scratch, as was Frederik Gauthier and Travis Dermott.
Viktor Loov was also scratched, Ty Stanton replacing him in the line-up. I’m not certain but I believe Loov is currently healthy, just not playing well this season so far.
An assist for Andrew Nielsen was his eleventh power play point of the season. He’s eight in all rookie scoring with 15 points.
Garret Sparks was very poor after a decent comeback performance Saturday. He’ll need to work hard in practise to receive starts on the road with Antoine Bibeau returning and Jeff Glass hungry for another opportunity.