Winning ugly is preferable to any kind of loss, but the Toronto Marlies certainly rode their luck on their way to claiming two points in the opening game of the 2017-18 season.
It wasn’t much of a spectacle for the 6,002 patrons inside Ricoh Coliseum as they watched Toronto struggle to create many scoring chances against a well-organized Utica team.
In a game chock full of penalties, the opening period set the tone, with Utica guilty of an infraction 37 seconds in. The Marlies wasted four power-play opportunities and found themselves down by a goal through 20 minutes.
Darren Archibald should have put the Comets ahead at the five-minute mark when he was left unattended in the slot, but Garret Sparks moved swiftly from right to left to make the pad save.
The visitors struck on their lone power play of the period 90 seconds later after Toronto’s defense gifted time to Nikolay Goldobin between the hashmarks. The birthday boy made no mistake with a finish in off of the post, giving Sparks no chance.
The key moment in the game came with less than three minutes of the second period played after a horrific turnover from Colin Greening presented Utica with a two-on-one chance deep in the Marlies zone.
Reid Boucher dished off to Michael Chaput, but somehow the home team dodged a two-goal deficit thanks to the efforts of Sparks. The Marlies immediately went down the ice and tied up the game.
Ben Smith’s quick pass out from behind the net caught Thatcher Demko flatfooted and Rich Clune was able to beat the Comets goaltender with a snapshot.
After surviving a Utica power play, Toronto almost took the lead, but Clune was unable to corral a juicy from rebound from Smith’s initial attempt.
Both teams exchanged penalties for the remainder of the middle frame, with Travis Dermott guilty of two infractions, the second of which put Toronto down by two men for 22 seconds. No harm was inflicted, however, and the score remained deadlocked after 40 minutes.
It certainly felt like the next goal was going to determine the fate of the points on offer.
Miro Aaltonen wasted a chance just seconds into the third period when he fired high over the net. His linemate Kasperi Kapanen was then called into shot-blocking action and his left ankle took the brunt of a rasping drive. Fortunately, the Finnish winger was able to shrug it off and return to the game.
A golden opportunity for Utica to reclaim the lead came at the five-minute mark as Archibald escaped courtesy of a long outlet pass from Jordan Subban. The veteran forward’s shot beat Sparks but crashed off the underside of the crossbar and away to safety.
After wasting numerous power play chances, the Marlies finally cashed in by keeping it simple. After some pitch and catch with Andreas Johnsson, Dermott drifted into the middle of the ice before putting the puck on net. Chaos ensued with Kerby Rychel providing the screen, and the puck bounced free for the aforementioned winger to pounce on, putting Toronto ahead with 12 minutes remaining.
The goal certainly went straight to the Marlies’ legs as they came close to extending their lead through Trevor Moore and Justin Holl.
The victory was far from certain as Labate struck the iron twice in a three-minute span and Boucher contrived to miss in tight.
To Toronto’s credit, they locked the game down inside the final three minutes or so and iced the victory thanks to a faceoff win from Aaltonen that led to Nikita Soshnikov firing the puck into the Comets empty cage from inside his own blue line.
The 3-1 victory was an early indication that Toronto can win this season when not playing at their best. However, there is much to be improved upon going forward, including a power play that lacked any semblance of cohesiveness.
Post Game Notes
– Under added pressure to perform with the Calvin Pickard acquisition, Garret Sparks stopped 19 of 20 shots and made a handful of key saves. Kasimir Kaskisuo served as the backup and the word is Pickard won’t join the Marlies until next weekend.
– It was an inauspicious return to the AHL for Kasperi Kapanen, who failed to record a shot and took two penalties.
– Nikita Soshnikov led all skaters with five shots and didn’t look as if he was sulking following his reassignment.
– Timothy Liljegren was paired with Rinat Valiev and performed admirably in his AHL debut. Poised would be the best way to describe his overall performance; he seemed to create more time for himself than others with the puck on his stick.
– Miro Aaltonen was another to impress on debut and thrived while being handed key assignments by Sheldon Keefe.
– The scratches were Jeremy Bracco, Martin Marincin, Michael Paliotta and Mason Marchment. The expectation is that two of the three forwards will see action in Sunday’s rematch.