The Toronto Marlies kicked off their 2018 Calder Cup run in style with a 3-2 overtime victory over the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, the Utica Comets. Jeremy Bracco and Justin Holl scored for the Marlies to send the game to extras, and Chris Mueller ended the game in overtime. Garret Sparks gave his blood, sweat, and tears for the win. Literally.
Carl Grundstrom - Miro Aaltonen - Trevor Moore
Dmytro Timashov - Chris Mueller - Ben Smith (C)
Pierre Engvall - Frederik Gauthier- Colin Greening (A)
Mason Marchment - Adam Brooks - Jeremy Bracco
Martin Marincin - Timothy Liljegren
Calle Rosen - Justin Holl
Andreas Borgman - Vincent LoVerde (A)
The AHL’s top goaltender Garret Sparks will start for the Toronto Marlies. Sparks led the league in save percentage (.936), goals against average (1.79), and shutouts (6) this season. In eight AHL playoff games spread over three seasons, Sparks is 3-3-1 with a .910 sv% and 2.42 GAA.
18 Vincent Arseneau – 19 Cole Cassels – 58 Michael Carcone
7 Tanner MacMaster – 36 Wacey Hamilton (A) – 34 Carter Bancks (C)
15 Zack MacEwen – 21 Michael Chaput – 40 Lukas Jasek
77 Nikolay Goldobin – 14 Tyler Motte – 11 Cam Darcy
28 Patrick Wiercioch – 5 Jalen Chatfield
6 Ashton Sautner – 8 Dylan Blujus
55 Guillaume Brisebois – 26 Jaime Sifers (A)
Vancouver Canucks top prospect Thatcher Demko gets the start of the Utica Comets on Saturday. The second-year pro improved on a .907 sv% in 46 games in 2016-17 to a .922 sv% in 45 games this season. This will be his first AHL playoff game.
After a quick start to the period, the Marlies have been having trouble with the Comets’ speed. After being gifted an early power play because of a too many men on the ice call, the Marlies two groups showed no life, and the two minutes was over in a flash.
LoVerde made a great play in his own zone, bodying a Comets forechecker off the puck and sending a three-line cross-ice pass to Bracco for a 2-on-1 that forced Demko into making a quick glove save to deflect the puck away.
After an interference call against the Comets, Dylan Blujus grabs Borgman and starts giving him quick jabs to the chest. They get quickly broken up as Borgman decides he wants none of it. The Comets have decided to overload the side of the puck carrier at the half-wall while on the penalty kill with a winger right in the player’s face and the other playing the high slot.
Knowing they couldn’t use their patented low-high play between the center and the winger, the Marlies tried to create rebounds towards the weak side of the ice. This worked pretty well with Moore nearly scoring on the short side but getting stopped by the post and Demko’s stick.
With the Marlies in the offensive zone, Greening hits Nikolay Goldobin from behind into the boards. Goldobin’s head hits the base of the wall and he stays down in a heap as a crowd forms around Greening. Eventually Goldobin gets up with the aide of the trainer and Greening is shipped off to the box to serve a two minute boarding penalty.
Bad hit here from Colin Greening on Nikolay Goldobin. Gets a boarding penalty for it. pic.twitter.com/4V07U9mLyo— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 21, 2018
With the big shot of Patrick Wiercioch — It’s really hard for me to not write that unironically — at the point, the Marlies have made it a point to make sure both wingers are right in his shooting lane while on the penalty kill.
Despite not being a top scorer for the Marlies on the back-end, “Timoth” Liljegren has improved his defensive game considerably from the start of the season. The player who was not only too slow but also too weak to cut off a dump-and-chase while tracking back in his own zone has turned into a confident and attentive defenseman who has turned into one of the better defensive defensemen in the AHL as a teenager.
Watching Liljegren close the gap in transition and rub off his man against the boards. pic.twitter.com/x5XF9Ags8D— Ian Tulloch (@regressIan) April 21, 2018
For a scoreless period, that was a very exciting, and more importantly, a very telling period. The Marlies have shown both the ability to beat the Comets clean in transition as well as the tendency to get pushed around along the boards, leading to nine shots against by the Comets. After the first, the shots are 6-9 despite the Marlies getting two power plays to the Comets one.
Liljegren had a solid first period in the playoffs at both ends of the ice. Vincent LoVerde looks like a man on a mission; he’s had incredible jump in the defensive and neutral zones. Head coach Sheldon Keefe appears to be sheltering his kid line in the playoffs. It might be because he has the ability to do that with all of the depth at forward, but I’m sure part of the decision came from that trio struggling against the higher competition. Their power play unit has gotten nothing done in their two minutes of ice time, barely a shot attempt.
Liljegren outlet passes are something. pic.twitter.com/H6UDyT6joT— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) April 21, 2018
While cleaning the ice at Ricoh, one of the Zambonis broke down right at the top of the slot in the Utica end. It was stalled, dripping either coolant or oil, making a big yellowy-green puddle right on the ice.
The Marlies Zamboni doing its best "Leafs right-side defenceman" impression pic.twitter.com/yA8M587l3n— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 21, 2018
Luckily they were able to drive the Zamboni off the ice and clean up the mess with the other machine. The ice crew later went out onto the ice and filled the hole with snow and froze it with a fire extinguisher. Fun stuff.
Before: oh crap oh crap oh crap 😱😬💀— #1 Lightning fan (@HardevLad) April 21, 2018
After: good as new! 😅 pic.twitter.com/do0PjC87c5
Grundstrom kicks off the second period with a great shift. To begin, Marchment goes at it with Carcone at the Marlies blue line while the Comets are trying to get something going offensively. Hacks and slashes in both directions leads to a pretty animated Marchment as he heads to the bench.
Grundstrom comes out for him and proceeds to destroy a streaking Hamilton along the boards in the neutral zone, causing a turnover. Grundstrom immediately goes the other way with the puck and hits the post on his shot from the slot! As the play dies down, his line draws a hooking penalty from the aforementioned Hamilton, sending the Marlies to the power play.
Jeremy Bracco gets the Marlies faithful on their feet when he steals a pass from Carcone and beats Demko blocker side, right off the post and in. That’s the first playoff goal for Bracco, in his first game, on his second shot. His first was the breakaway LoVerde unleashed him for.
The Comets have taken to trying to hit everything in their path and it’s playing right into the Marlies hands. After the goal by Bracco, the Comets have been pushing deep into the Marlies zone trying to finish checks and lay the body every chance they get. This allowed the Marlies to get three good rush chances on Demko, including a post. But, of course, Truculence is still the way to go, I’m sure.
The Marlies came out flying in the second period and have not only evened up the shot clock, but have put themselves ahead 1-0 on the goal by Bracco. Martin Marincin has been a horse for the Marlies on the back end. He and Holl play top lines in the defensive zone for the majority of 5v5. MarMar also gets the Ron Hainsey treatment on the penalty kill, in that he doesn’t leave the ice for the entire two minutes. He starts with LoVerde, and Rosen comes on sometime after the first minute has gone.
Car Troubles Continued
The head ice crew member is now hitching a ride behind the previously broken zamboni in order to make sure everything is working. All systems go!
Early in the third, the Marlies have done a great job at keeping the Comets out of the offensive zone. Three minutes into the period, Marincin gets called for a hold while defending a zone entry. Oh wait, no it’s Marchment. Wait, Bracco is starting to skate to the box. What is happening? After several minutes of discussion between the benches, the referees put Comets centre Cassels in the box for holding! It was an odd series of events but at the end of the day, the Marlies get a power play.
While on the power play, Marchment gets sent to the box for slashing during a “skirmish” in front of the Utica net. Not long after, key penalty killer LoVerde gets called for delay of game after shooting the puck over the glass. The Comets call a timeout to prepare for a really important 5v3 power play for 40 seconds.
Five seconds after the Marchment penalty expired and with LoVerde still in the box, Zach MacEwen ties the game for the Comets. MacMaster and Chaput get the assists.
We now have written proof I write these recaps live because after I explicitly said that the kid line of Marchment, Brooks, and Bracco have looked overwhelmed in the first period, they have come out in the next two and looked like their old (young) selves. Marchment has been a major pest all over the ice and it’s clear that the Utica Comets hate him a lot. Brooks has quietly had himself a dominant second half of the game. He’s winning battles for position in front of the net and to loose pucks, and despite a few hiccups, has gotten the job done defensively by being a good outlet for his teammates whenever he’s on the wing.
With five minutes remaining in regulation, Holl puts the Marlies ahead by a goal when his point shot found a hole through five different players and goalie Demko. Utica ran straight to the referees clamouring for a goalie interference call, but their cries fell on deaf ears. Judging by the video, I’m sure there’s a case for goalie interference but battles had been going on in front of the net all game and not only were the defenders pushing the forwards into the crease, but the referees had been letting that go all game.
Almost immediately following the go-ahead-goal, Marincin takes a tripping penalty (for real this time), forcing the Marlies to go into all-defending mode. As mentioned before, Marincin is on both penalty kill units and plays the majority of the two minutes the team is short-handed.
In his absence, coach Keefe deploys LoVerde, Holl, Rosen, and Borgman to hold the fort for the Marlies on the back end. All four had penalty killing practice during the regular season, but since Borgman is the least experienced of the group, he hasn’t been trusted to play the PK regularly in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if that changes as Keefe gets more comfortable with him.
The Marlies do a great job of keeping the Comets from achieving quality zone time in the offensive zone and this forces Demko to stay in his net until almost exactly the final minute. Timashov may have his faults in the defensive zone, but his speed and awareness in the neutral zone was on full display leading up to the final shift of the third period. He hounded the Comets who were trying to make a line change and created a turnover at the red line that forced Demko to rush back to his net and make an acrobatic save as he scrambled back.
With 35.6 seconds left in regulation and Demko finally on the bench, the Comets catch the Marlies collapsing too far towards Sparks and allowing Chaput to take a slap shot from the top of the right circle. His shot gets by Moore, who couldn’t get high enough to cut off the angle, and past Rosen and Gauthier, who couldn’t move their men out of the shooting lane. And it gets past Sparks who had no idea where the puck was.
With five seconds left in a tie game, Grundstrom takes an unnecessary high-sticking penalty as the puck is dumped into the Marlies zone. There was no danger coming from Utica and all the Marlies were back. Nevertheless, Grundstrom gets tagged for the Marlies’ sixth penalty and fourth in the period that will put the Marlies down 4v5 for the first 1:55 of overtime. After three periods, the Marlies lead in shots 31-25. Thatcher Demko really has shown the ability to stand on his head and keep his team in the game all night. He has series stealing skill.
Speaking of series stealing skill; Sparks did this on Cam Darcy while the Marlies were without Grundstrom. Unbelievable.
If this overtime was a story, the protagonist of it would definitely be Sparks. He stepped up massively for the Marlies during repeated onslaughts from the Comets during the first half of the period. One such situation saw Sparks nearly lose an eye and the game all in one fell swoop.
As the Comets were buzzing around the back of the net, Mueller accidentally spears Sparks through his mask and cutting his nose badly. The Comets immediately jumped on the chance and tried to stuff the puck into the now unguarded net.
Here's the high stick and waved-off Cole Cassels goal. Sparks managed to get the bleeding under control after a minute or two and remains in goal. pic.twitter.com/Mj1A3NVVIF— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 21, 2018
All of the Utica players left the bench to celebrate but the referee started vehemently indicated that he saw no goal on the play and that they will review the call. During the review, Sparks was laying on the ice with the trainer attending to him.
Eventually he would get back to the bench where it appeared that Pickard would be coming into the game. However, Sparks calmly skated over to the end of the bench and got his face glued up, put his mask back on and glided back to his crease as the referees finished their review and determined that Sparks stopped the puck from crossing the line. No goal.
When asked about whether there was any chance he wouldn’t stay in the game, Sparks gave a very simple “no.”
He went on to tell a story of a much more disgusting hockey injury that he played through.
“I got high-sticked in open hockey when I was 18 in the first shift. There was blood gushing out of my mouth. By the time I got some paper towels to stick in my mouth they had wiped the blood off the ice and we were good to go again. Facial injuries aren’t going to keep me down.”
With Sparks holding the fort at one end, the Marlies started to push back and get their offense going in the second half of the period. They were awarded with a power play with 12 minutes to go in the period and then proceeded to throw 16 shots towards goalie Demko. At 17:11, Ashton Sautner takes a hooking penalty and this happens...
Timshov’s first shot on the power play causes a ruckus in front of the net that dislodged Demko’s stick. The Comets try to clear the puck but Rosen keeps it in the zone so Timashov can feed Mueller behind the net.
Mueller took reporters through the play as he saw it in the moment: “I noticed that he didn’t have his stick, but I forgot about that the moment I got the puck.” Once Mueller got the puck, he charged right to the front of the net and wrapped the puck around Demko’s stick side and slotted the puck home in a move that totally looked planned, but Mueller made sure to kill that, saying, “It’s not like I totally planned it.”
The crowd goes nuts.
Demko is left to sit inside his net with his teammates huddled around him
And the Marlies celebrate a 1-0 series lead in the first round.
Okay, I think I’m going to cut off this marathon of a recap. If you’ve read this far, I want you to know I love you. Marlies play game 2 against the Comets Sunday April 22nd at 4pm. And if you’re in the area, go see them in person! It’s a lot of fun.