Special teams once more proved the difference for the Toronto Marlies as they prevailed in yet another one goal game against a divisional rivals.
The Utica Comets were looking to break a four game losing streak, go above .500 and in doing so, leapfrog the Marlies in the standings.
The road team certainly made a positive start toward that ambition and were easily the better team during the first period.
Jordan Subban has enjoyed personal success against the Marlies this season and with just 2:30 played, the hosts gifted him space to cruise into the right circle unchallenged.
Garret Sparks was alert to the danger and made an excellent save but Toronto appeared flustered by the visitors bright beginning.
Just thirty seconds later and Viktor Loov gifted the puck to Alexandre Grenier heading down the middle of the Marlies zone. Thankfully for Toronto and Loov, Grenier chose to pass instead of shoot and the opportunity went begging.
Toronto would fail to test Richard Bachman until the seven minute mark. Frederik Gauthier winning a battle along the boards before throwing the puck out in front to Rich Clune. The veteran forward didn’t get all of his effort and Bachman made the stop.
Subban should really have opened the scoring as the period headed toward the midway point. Sparks was caught scrambling and out of position after making what looked a simple save but Utica’s defenseman failed to hit the target with an empty cage to aim at.
The Comets would finally take a deserved lead on the first power play of the game.
Toronto would be unable to scramble the puck clear and with Sparks floundering once more, Darren Archibald was on hand to put home the loose puck.
Upon the resumption of play the visitors could easily have doubled their lead. Borna Rendulic the recipient of a giveaway in the Marlies zone but he sent his shot wide from the high slot.
Toronto’s penalty kill would be required to go back to work but this time they were able to shut Utica down, and almost netted themselves through a Byron Froese effort from the slot.
As the Comets had done previously, the home team tallied on their first power play of the game.
After a spell of concerted pressure, Froese sent a backhand feed to Andreas Johnsson in the slot, but his shot was deflected. The redirection sent the puck off Kerby Rychel’s skate and the All-Star was alert to the chance, reacting before Bachman to tie the game.
Sheldon Keefe would not have been impressed by his team’s work ethic or distribution of the puck in the opening twenty minutes.
Whatever message was sent, it had the desired effect as Toronto struck just 63 seconds into the middle frame.
Andrew Campbell began the play by winning a prolonged battle on the left wall to keep the puck in the Comets zone, before sending it around behind the net. Seth Griffith and Trevor Moore followed the captain’s example before the latter found some space to tee up Froese in the slot and the one-time shot beat Bachman.
Goal scoring opportunities were at a premium for both teams as neither were able to garner any sustained possession in the offensive zone.
A rush from Moore beginning at centre ice took him between two opponents but his backhand effort was turned aside by Bachman.
Tony Cameranesi was the next to try his luck but after stealing possession his shot on the turn whistled past the far post to the relief of Utica’s goaltender.
The lone penalty of the second period was handed to Loov with five minutes remaining. Toronto stood firm once more and a short-handed rush from Cameranesi was denied by a determined Bachman.
After a solid and more improved effort in the middle frame, it was frustrating when Toronto gifted their opponents a tying goal with 57 seconds remaining.
Andrew Nielsen turned the puck over at his own blue line, and would go on to lose his stick as Utica pressed and moved the puck around with purpose. Unable to shut down Michael Carcone, Nielsen could only watch as the pass went by him and found Colby Robak sneaking into the left circle. The Comets defenseman made no mistake with an excellent one-time shot for his third goal of the season.
Utica have struggled to generate offense this season, averaging just 2.5 goals per game heading into this encounter.
With that in mind, the last thing Toronto needed to do was present their visitors with gilt-edged opportunities.
A misplay from Travis Dermott just thirty seconds into the period looked set to cost his team but Sparks pulled off a wonderful save to bail out the rookie defenseman.
In his first game since clearing waivers, Frank Corrado would be sitting in the box at the two minute mark.
Grenier missed one excellent chance from the slot but otherwise Toronto’s penalty kill was excellent. They created two short-handed breakaways in the process – Johnsson firing high whilst Gauthier saw his effort bring a fine glove save from Bachman.
Mike Zalewski was a threat throughout this game and tested Sparks during an odd-man rush and Toronto’s netminder stayed big to make a shoulder save.
A fifth penalty of the game for the home team, this time for too many men, offered the Comets a chance to take the lead as the midway point of the period approached.
By this time Toronto’s penalty killers had the number of Utica’s power play, with the visitors creating absolutely nothing of note.
It must have been deflating for the Comets bench who had to fear the worst when the Marlies were awarded just their second power play of the game only sixty seconds later
It was a piece of magic from Kerby Rychel that would prove decisive.
From the left side, the winger drove to the net, making his way past Utica’s four skaters before finishing with aplomb from the slot. Utica had unwisely backed off too far but take nothing away from what was a wonderful goal scored by a player full of confidence right now
Toronto wouldn’t so much go into their shell as look to play a solid, responsible brand of hockey with seven minutes remaining.
The road team went for broke with 1:50 to play, pulling Bachman from net but rarely testing Sparks. In fact Toronto’s goaltender would face just eight shots in the third period, as Utica were kept to the outside and shooting lanes promptly shut down.
One of many outstanding plays from the ultra reliable Gauthier, enabled his team to clear the zone and allowed Rich Clune to skate away alone and slide the puck home into the yawning cage to seal victory
A crucial two points that creates separation between Toronto and Utica but also means the Marlies have leapfrogged over St. John’s IceCaps and now occupy third place in the North Division.
Post Games Notes:
Toronto were out-shot 31-25 but still managed to put out the victory. Their record now improves to 4-10-1-1 when allowing more shots than they take.
Toronto have faced divisional opponents through their last six games and are 5-1-0-0 during that stretch.
The Marlies improve to 4-1 in the season series with the Comets – all four victories on home ice. The remaining three games will take place in Utica.
Toronto’s power play was a perfect two for two and the penalty kill 4/5.
A pair of goals for Kerby Rychel takes his seasons tally to eleven. He has four points in his last two games and thirty on the season.
Byron Froese notched his 20th goal of the season. Eight of those have come in his last 14 games.
A fourth multi-point effort for Seth Griffith who extends his record to producing in all eight games for Toronto.
Andreas Johnsson helped himself to a pair of assists and has five points in as many games.