The Toronto Marlies have clinched a playoff berth but not in the manner which will have given them any pleasure.
A goal in the 59th minute of play sent St. John’s crashing to defeat and ensured Toronto’s passage to the post-season, despite suffering defeat themselves.
It was never going to be plain sailing in Utica Friday evening, but Toronto didn’t help themselves with a poor showing against a Comets team desperate for points in their playoff push.
The opening eight minutes were mostly controlled by the visitors, who were hemming Utica in with an excellent cycle game without creating many chances of note.
The best opportunity fell to Brendan Leipsic during an odd man rush, but he chose to pass instead of shooting and Utica were able to clear.
Garret Sparks would not be called upon until Toronto’s first penalty kill and he had to be sharp to stop Evan McEneny. The Comets defenseman inexplicably allowed to walk straight through the Marlies defense and Sparks made a sprawling save to deny him.
Toronto’s discipline left a lot to de desired during this game and Kerby Rychel was the next man in the box. After a sustained spell of pressure thanks to consecutive offensive zone face-off wins, the home team opened the scoring on their second power play.
Joseph LaBate redirected a shot from Colby Robak after twelve minutes had elapsed.
Thirty seconds later and it was Toronto’s turn with the extra man but it proved a pathetic effort as they failed to set-up in the Comets end..
The visitors took great heart from killing their first penalty and immediately forced Sparks into a pair of saves.
After efforts from Brendan Leipsic and Colin Greening were saved by Thatcher Demko, Toronto would earn their second power play following a scrum after a whistle.
It proved a better effort than the first, though Demko wasn’t tested as the Marlies finished with just six shots to their name through twenty minutes.
The middle frame is one Toronto will want to forget in a hurry. A series of errors from the visitors allowed Utica to stretch their lead and could easily have put the game to bed had the home team been ultra clinical.
A fairly positive start from the Marlies saw them draw a penalty but proceedings quickly went downhill from that point on.
Andrew Nielsen cut short the power play with a penalty 25 seconds into the man advantage and Utica were on top during 4-on-4 action.
Darren Archibald escaped on a breakaway and though unable to score, drew a penalty shot.
The left winger failed to test Sparks as he rifled his effort past the goaltender’s right post
Seth Griffith was the next man to take a seat, presenting the home team with an eventual two man advantage. Utica made it count with two seconds remaining – Cody Kunyk finishing off from Archibald.
The Comets were still on the powerplay having struck during the 5-on-3 but were unable to add to their lead.
The home team carried all the play until Wacey Hamilton was nabbed for hooking.
Toronto’s propensity for cutting short power plays continued as Andreas Johnsson was forced into hooking Cole Cassels to prevent a short-handed rush proving costly.
Sparks pulled out one miraculous stop on the ensuing penalty kill and then robbed Virtanen with a fine glove back at even strength.
To cap the calamitous nature of the period, Steve Oleksy caught an intended lob out of the zone from Utica but failed to release the puck in time. He took a seat with twenty seconds of the period remaining and his team-mates would begin the final frame down a man.
Sparks ensured no damage was done to the score line, though his mask may have needed some TLC as he took a blast from Borna Rendulic directly on the lid.
The home team were happy to hang onto what they had – allowing Toronto to build pressure for the first time since the opening eight minutes.
It was Utica’s turn to take a host of penalties and with two extra skaters for over a minute, the Marlies finally capitalised. Mike Sislo fired home from the left circle to halve the deficit and the goal was timely enough to ensure the power play continued.
Toronto could not force a tying goal despite drawing yet another power play but there was still ten minutes to play in which to strike for a second time.
By this juncture Sheldon Keefe had thoroughly mixed up the lines looking for a spark but it never really arrived. There was a lost of bluster but little quality in Toronto’s play.
Sergey Kalinin and Frederik Gauthier would come the closest to levelling the game with bundles of endeavour around the net but no cutting edge.
With Sparks pulled inside the final two minutes, the Comets secured victory with an empty net goal to end the Marlies seven game winning streak.
Post Game Notes:
Toronto mustered 26 shots on net, twelve of those recorded in the third period.
All three goals were scored on the power play. Utica were 2/6 with the extra man and Toronto 1/7.
Toronto won the season series with Utica 5-3. All three losses occurred on the road.
The Marlies lead at the top of the North Division is cut to three points after Syracuse took a point from an overtime loss to Binghamton.
This is the sixth straight season that Toronto has qualified for the post-season.
Brendan Leipsic extended his point streak to seven games with a primary assist.