The Toronto Marlies power play has been consistently good this season but it’s hit new heights in recent games.
It proved the difference maker in Utica, as the teams shared ten goals and Toronto tallied four times with the extra man.
Toronto’s penchant for slow starts reared it’s ugly head once again and they found themselves down by a pair of goals inside ten minutes.
It took the hosts just 92 seconds to open the scoring. Jordan Subban finding Brendan Gaunce with a perfect long outlet pass and the latter finished top shelf past Garret Sparks.
The Comets were simply out-working the visitors with a strong fore-check and negating any space in the neutral zone. Though Toronto would kill the first penalty of the game, Utica’s ability to win the battles for possession led to their second goal.
Curtis Valk was able to pick out Chad Billings wide open in the middle of the Marlies zone and he scooted around Sparks before lifting the puck up and over the goaltender’s pads.
It was so nearly 3-0 to the home team at the ten minute mark and it would not have been undeserved.
Cody Kunyk forcing Sparks into a fine pad save after swift puck movement left Toronto floundering in their own zone.
A power play for the Marlies halted the flow somewhat but bar for a couple of opportunities in the final seconds, it was a poor effort by the visitors..
The game was certainly more even after Utica’s first penalty kill but the turning point would come with the home team’s second infraction of the period.
Thatcher Demko would perform daylight robbery to deny Byron Froese scoring backdoor but a handful of seconds later Toronto got themselves on the boards.
Andreas Johnsson taking a pass from Kerby Rychel, before switching to his backhand and beating Demko far post.
There would be no goal celebration however because as Johnsson was in the process of finding the net, Wacey Hamilton had taken a run at Seth Griffith from behind, sending the newest Marlie flying to the ice.
Rychel went in to defend the honour of his team-mate and would receive ten, five and two for his actions. Hamilton somehow escaped with just five for fighting and two for charging, despite what was an extremely dangerous play.
Toronto were fortunate to escape the first period down just a goal and looked to up their game in the second period.
It didn’t go to plan initially however, as a turnover from Justin Holl led to thirty seconds of scrambling around the Toronto net but somehow the puck stayed in front of Sparks.
Having survived that scare, the Marlies would turn the game on it’s head with two further power play goals, though Utica would come to rue some missed opportunities.
The home team should really have scored short-handed while killing the first penalty of the period. Sparks inexplicably misplayed the puck, handing possession to Carter Bancks a few feet in front of him.
The Comets forward probably still won’t know how he failed to score when he wakes up Saturday morning and to compound his annoyance, Toronto would tie up the game shortly after.
The home team backed off Dmytro Timashov as he entered the left circle and upon reaching the face-off dot released a blistering shot that beat Demko top shelf.
Back at even strength and Utica had a chance to re-take the lead. The Marlies fourth line of Laich, Greening and Smith didn’t dump the puck deep enough before heading for a change – allowing a breakaway for Valk. Sparks stayed with the shot and denied the Utica forward netting for a second time.
A mere twelve seconds into their next man advantage, Toronto would put themselves in front for the first time.
Griffith had space in the right circle and his shot was deflected by Johnsson in front. Demko would deny the latter and Trevor Moore but could do nothing to prevent Froese slamming home the rebound.
Griffith would find himself with another opportunity with three minutes remaining but would be frustrated on two counts. Firstly his shot brought an excellent save from Demko and though being high-sticked on the play, no call was forthcoming.
Redemption wouldn’t be far away as Toronto extended their lead with one minute of the second period remaining. Moore with excellent work behind the net before teeing up Griffith to finally find the twine. He’s not been the luckiest in front of goal in recent games and the exuberant celebration that followed was likely down to previous exasperation at his misfortunes.
The scoring was far from over though, as Utica came out for the third period with renewed hunger and Toronto appeared half-asleep.
After missing three opportunities to clear their own zone when under pressure, the Marlies would concede a goal just 33 seconds in. Hamilton netting his sixth of the season from the slot and so began a siege on the visitors net.
Almost immediately there was another breakaway chance for Valk but Sparks was equal to him yet again and then defenseman Colby Robak’s effort after stepping into the play.
Just two minutes after pulling within one, the Comets tied the game up with consummate ease.
Toronto were ragged, losing a pair of battles along the boards before chasing the puck as Utica engineered their tying goal. Carter Bancks would apply the final touch after a set-up from Chad Billings and Hamilton.
It was certainly a brand new hockey game at this stage but Toronto found an old and familiar way to score.
Back on the power play it was Moore who found the net after Smith found him with space in the slot.
Pulling back ahead just three minutes after Utica had tied proceedings, was certainly a dagger blow to the home team and their fans went eerily quiet after being so raucous.
Toronto’s discipline was excellent throughout this game despite a lot of provocation from the home team. So when William Wrenn was called at the eight minute mark, it was just the Marlies second penalty kill of the game.
The Comets threw everything at the net but somehow weren’t able to level the game. Jake Virtanen would be denied by Sparks, the post would be struck and several goalmouth scrambles would end safely for Toronto.
Having survived that onslaught, Toronto played their best even strength hockey of the game for the final ten minutes of regulation.
There were opportunities for Tony Cameranesi, Griffith, Froese and Moore but an insurance goal eluded the Marlies.
Sparks would stand tall to deny a blast from Subban with two minutes remaining and the Comets pulled Demko thirty seconds later. The home team would rarely threaten the Marlies goal before Johnsson was able to put Toronto ahead by two with the simplest of empty net goals.
Still Utica would not lie down however and Sparks would be called upon to make several stops in the dying seconds before victory was assured by the final buzzer.
Not Toronto’s best effort at even strength but they found a way to prevail. This is a game they would have undoubtedly lost not so long ago.
Post Games Notes:
This was Toronto’s fifth straight road victory and improves their travelling record to 11-13-1-1.
The Marlies are now third in the North Division, jumping over the IceCaps who lost in Lehigh tonight. More important, Utica now trail Toronto by five points, though have a game in hand.
The power play has tallied in five straight games and is now operating at over 25%.
This was the second time Toronto has scored four power play goals in a game this season. The previous time was against Utica at Ricoh Coliseum in October.
There were three point games for Andreas Johnsson, Byron Froese, Trevor Moore and Frank Corrado.
A lone goal for Seth Griffith extends his point streak to nine games.
A goal for Dmytro Timashov now means he has four in his last five games.
Kerby Rychel’s primary helper on the opening goal is his 20th assist of the season.
Brooks Laich made his return from injury, playing for the first time since December 17.
Viktor Loov was absent through injury and Andrew Nielsen with sickness. William Wrenn and Willie Corrin were the third pairing on defense.