After years of dominating their opponents just across the border, the Toronto Marlies have struggled to come to terms with the Rochester Americans this season.
Just three points taken from the six games between the divisional rivals and none inside the confines of the Blue Cross Arena.
Having ground out a victory on Sunday, Toronto would be required to find another way to dig out a victory on an ice surface which wasn’t conducive to possession hockey.
The visitors certainly set about their task with gusto from the opening face-off.
Byron Froese and Seth Griffith welcome a new line mate in Trevor Moore, and the trio began with the required tempo. Two shots inside the opening 37 seconds, with Rochester relieved when Linus Ullmark held on for the first whistle of the game.
It would be that same line that ensured Toronto scored the first goal of the game with 3:37 on the clock.
On four occasions the Amerks were denied from clearing their zone as the Marlies fought to keep every puck inside the blue line. That hard work would eventually lead to s shot from Travis Dermott being tipped home by Griffith.
The goal scorer would end up in the penalty box a little under three minutes later but it mattered not as more had graft negated the penalty. Rich Clune is the epitome of working hard and he drew a tripping penalty from Nick Baptiste.
It’d take the home team over ten minutes to register their first shot on net and would lead to them drawing another power play opportunity.
Toronto’s penalty killing unit was excellent and Garret Sparks was barely called into action.
The home teams best chances of the game would fall on the same shift. Justin Bailey and Erik Burgdoerfer both brought the best from Sparks. Toronto so nearly made it 2-0 on their next rush and it would not have been an undeserved advantage.
Dmytro Timashov showed great determination on the left boards, freeing himself from the attention of his opponents to send the puck back up the wall to the blue line.
Ready and waiting was Marlies debutant, Nikolas Brouillard. The defenseman sent a screaming one-time shot that rang off the crossbar and away from those Marlies players in front creating a screen.
Justin Holl used his size, strength and skating ability to good use in this game and one such offensive drive almost led to a goal inside the final forty second. He faked a shot after beating his man, dishing off to Froese by the side of the net. The centre man looked to spin across the crease in an attempt to shovel the puck home, but Ullmark made the required save and Froese would find himself buried in the crease.
Though Toronto would continue to own the majority of possession and offensive zone time, the first shot of the period would see Rochester tie up proceedings.
Brady Austin picked of an intended cross ice pass in the neutral zone and wasted little time in sending a precision pass to Hudson Fasching who had split the visitors defense.
The right winger sat Sparks down with a fantastic deke before slotting into the empty cage.
Both teams would create chances of some kind, but generating goal scoring opportunities was proving difficult on the slow ice even at this relative early stage.
Rochester would go on their third power play of the game just over the midway mark but the much improved Marlies penalty kill stood firm once again to keep the scores level.
The Marlies would must 13 shots on net, though Ullmark wasn’t really tested. More impressively however, they restricted the home team to just seven, with Sparks having only seen 12 shots through forty minutes of play.
Toronto’s record when tied after forty minutes would not have been something Sheldon Keefe would have shown his troops during the intermission. A mere 2-5-1-0 and that was something that had to change of the positive with every point vital down the stretch.
The Marlies would be indebted to their Captain just a minute into proceedings.
Jean Dupuy led a 2-on-1 break down the left but Andrew Campbell held up the Amerks forward before making a fantastic diving play to ensure no damage was incurred.
With nerves apparent and the ice becoming worse, the game turned scrappy as both teams lacked any fluency and it certainly wasn’t a viewing classic.
Only one team would finally adapt to the conditions and Toronto would dominate the final nine minutes of regulation.
Andreas Johnsson showed how it was done, swinging around from the right wing to the middle of the ice before letting fly with a wrist shot. Ullmark made the save through traffic and Rochester would lean hard on their goaltender the rest of the way.
Tony Cameranesi and Clune teed up Marc-André Cliche, who so nearly scored his second of the season after recently opening his Marlies account.
Inside the final five minutes and Toronto may have wondered if it was going to be their day.
Colin Smith, Brett Findlay, Brouillard and Froese would all be denied, with Rochester once more thankful to their goaltender for clinging onto the puck to bring a stoppage in play.
From the resulting face-off, the visitors worked possession to Froese waiting just above the right circle. He could not have caught the puck any sweeter but Ullmark made a wonderful glove save despite being slightly out of position.
Findlay would see his backhand five-hole attempt turned aside and there would be no late drama in regulation and both teams guaranteed a point.
Toronto have not been more desperate for an extra point in a long while and looked to have a great chance to earn it when Kyle Bonis was called for hooking.
It was a dubious penalty – with the officials having let the teams played for the second half of the game, when they could easily have called half a dozen infractions.
It was the Amerks who came closest to winning the game on a short-handed rush. Tim Kennedy separated himself from the other six skaters but was unable to beat sparks who produced the save when his team needed it most.
With the penalty elapsed and no whistle blown, the remainder or overtime would be played at 4-on-4.
Smith tested Ullmark after dancing through the middle of the home team’s defense but for the second time this season, Toronto would face the unpredictability of the shootout.
It certainly wasn’t short of drama with the home fans living every shot and both divisional rivals desperate for the extra point.
Justin Bailey fired wide for the home team and up first for Toronto was Seth Griffith. He was almost the hero but his shot hit the post with Ullmark beaten.
Sparks would deny Alexander Nylander and Baptiste and in-between times Trevor Moore saw his five-hole attempt shut down.
The game was on the stick of Johnsson but Ullmark wasn’t for beating and pulled out yet another fine save.
At sudden death the tension was real and the home fans roared as Daniel Muzito-Bagenda fired low past Sparks to put his team one save away from victory.
Up stepped Kerby Rychel.
A man full of confidence – he drove down the middle of the ice, faking out Ullmark before calmly slotting home. Pressure, what pressure?
Sparks continued to keep his side of the bargain, turning aside Eric Cornel, Cole Schneider and Vaclav Karabacek. Now in the seventh round, Smith was presented with the chance to clinch victory.
He appeared calmness personified as he shifted the puck to his backhand, flipping an effort toward the net and Ullmark looked beaten but the post was his saviour, or was it?
In what seemed to be slow-motion the play wasn’t dead as the rebound hit Ullmark on the back and the puck fell into the net behind the Rochester goaltender.
It was a piece of luck Toronto have rarely had this season and one they deserved in a game where they out-shot the home team by a ratio of 2:1.
Post Game Notes:
For only the second time this season, Toronto have won consecutive road games.
With results in their favour, the Marlies have moved up to 5th in the North Division, just four points shy of Utica.
Nikolas Brouillard was finally given his Marlies debut after spending his season with Orlando so far. He looked comfortable in possession, reliable in his own zone and so nearly marked his first start with a goal.
Sheldon Keefe gave the rookie plenty of power play time and used him during overtime.
Seth Griffith has registered a point in all three starts for Toronto, with this his first goal of the season in any league.
Travis Dermott recorded his tenth assist of the season.
Trevor Moore was given the opportunity to play with more offensively talented line-mates and did not disappoint.
Marc-André Cliche played in his 400th AHL game tonight.
The road-trip continues in St. John’s this weekend and Toronto shall be looking to build upon six points from four games.