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Coming Home: Toronto Marlies eliminate Utica Comets, win 4-0 in Game 5

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Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson come home for some unfinished business.

Carl Grundstrom celebrates his second goal of the game
Credit: Christian Bonin

The Toronto Marlies may have been one of the most dominant teams on the road this season, but it took their home crowd to remind them who they are and how good they can be. Not only did the team come home, so did two of their biggest players. Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson gave the Marlies the boost they needed on and off the ice to help them stop the two-game skid they suffered in New York and win to live another day.

“It goes without saying how good players they are. They’re just two very positive people who have great energy about them,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe after the game. “They were excited to come down here and re-join the group. They were terrific for us tonight, and they made an impact.”

Garret Sparks echoed Keefe’s sentiment about Dermott and Johnsson saying, “those two guys love playing for the Marlies.”

Johnsson finished the game with two assists and a goal that Dermott had the primary assist on. Both had two shots in the game and controlled the play all over the ice.

I think Johnssons confidence changed,” continued Keefe. “He stepped right in and just played. There was no adjustment right from the very first shift. He got the puck on his stick and attacked the middle of the ice. It was clear that he came out here today to make a difference.”

After the game, Dermott talked about leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs on a sour note in Boston. But returning, not to the Air Canada Centre, but to Ricoh Coliseum feeling truly like a homecoming.

“These guys have been with me from the start of my pro career. It’s the kinda guys I’ve really evolved my game with while I was changing up my game pretty drastically,” said Dermott, speaking about the development he underwent with the Marlies over the past two seasons. “I’m here with guys who have been there with me, pushed me through the struggles that I’ve had, and the successes that I’ve had. It’s kinda like coming back and all these guys that patted me on the back and were sending me good luck texts right when I got called up are right by my side again. It’s like coming home.

Travis Dermott with the puck
Credit: Christian Bonin

Ricoh Coliseum has been a special place for the Marlies. Despite breaking the all-time record for wins on the road in a season, the Marlies really felt like coming home was exactly what they needed after the week they had in the States. Captain Ben Smith described the playoffs as a place where you have to deal with the nerves and that “there was a sense of calmness being back in our arena, our dressing room” that helped the team focus and get the job done.

Using the new-found life breathed into them by the Toronto completed a full 60 minutes of hard-working, defensively-sound, possession-filled hockey for a 4-0 victory over the Utica Comets, resulting in a berth to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs where they will meet the Syracuse Crunch for the second straight season. Syracuse beat the Marlies in seven games last season on their way to a Calder Cup Final loss.

The Team

Forwards

Andreas Johnsson - Miro Aaltonen - Carl Grundstrom

Dmytro Timashov - Chris Mue ller - Ben Smith

Pierre Engvall - Frederik Gauthier - Colin Greening

Mason Marchment - Adam Brooks - Trevor Moore

Defense

Martin Marincin - Justin Holl

Travis Dermott - Vincent LoVerde

Andrew Nielsen - Timothy Liljegren

Sheldon Keefe goes right back with Garret Sparks as his starter, despite his .860 save percentage in the playoffs up to this point. Thatcher Demko gets the net for the Utica Comets, he’s been stealing the series for the Comets thusfar, posting a .929 save percentage in four games.

By the end of the night, it appeared as though Keefe made the right decision. After his 37-save shutout to close out the series, Sparks’ save percentage jolted up to a .902 and his career playoff record to a positive 6-5-0. Those back-to-back five-goal losses are firmly in the rear-view mirror now.

Thatcher Demko
Christian Bonin

The Game

Switching to the present tense now, here is the play-by-play recap of game 5.

First Period

Two minutes into the game, the second line comes in on the rush with Smith carrying the puck across the blue line. Demko bobbles the initial shot from Smith long enough that Moore nearly capitalizes on the rebound from the weak side, but he is pulled down by Tyler Mott before he can score. Instead of a goal, the Marlies get an early power play.

1-0

Toronto’s second unit of Grundstrom, Aaltonen, Johnsson, Engvall, and Dermott create a lot of zone time, and a couple great chances right in front of the net. With Aaltonen in the middle of the ice, the Marlies are able to open a seam between Johnsson and Engvall. That creates an opening on the weak side where Grundstrom can grab the pass from Engvall, and pot the puck into the open net. And just like that, an early lead. This is something they didn’t have in any of their games in Utica.

You can see the quality that players like Johnsson and Dermott provide. With a forward barrelling down on him, and a puck lobbed into the defensive zone, Dermott is forced to catch the puck behind his back with his glove, fend off the forward who is on top of him, kick the puck to his stick, and send a pass up to get the Marlies offensive zone. All while skating backwards. He does it all with ease, and what can almost be described as grace. What a player.

With Chris Mueller in the box for tripping, the penalty kill duo of Greening and Goat spend a whole shift keeping the Comets away from Sparks’ end of the ice. The second unit with Johnsson and Aaltonen fail to be as good as that, but are able to keep the big-shot Patrick Wiercioch from stepping up into the slot, something the team wasn’t able to do in the previous two games. Wiercioch is still able to get his shot off from farther out and still produce a rebound. Marincin ties up his man in time, but LoVerde doesn’t, resulting in a good rebound chance for the Comets. Sparks, who got shelled for countless scoring chances against by his defense during the two-game skid, stops the shot and pushes the puck into the corner.

Later on in the game, Sparks did this. I still can’t believe it. Here’s even a closer look at what happened.

After One

After that period by the Marlies, I have a fully renewed confidence in this group. They out-shot, out-chanced, and thoroughly out-played the Comets in that period. On top of that, Sparks looks like the much better goalie compared to Demko, who has bobbled several pucks and has been exploited by the Marlies when moving from his stick-side to his glove-side.

Second Period

The Comets have decided they want to crash the net a lot more in the second frame. Sparks has done well to track pucks through the maze of bodies despite the fact that they are now falling on top of him. The second time the Comets get a little too up-close and personal with the Toronto netminder, Marincin charges after Michael Chaput and the two get into a scrap.

Garret Sparks in his office.
Credit: Christian Bonin

When the dust settles, Marincin gets called for high-sticking, and Chaput for roughing. While on the four-on-four, Travis Dermott jumps up on the rush with Trevor Moore but gets hauled down by Michael Carcone giving the Marlies a four-on-three power play for 1:05.

Nielsen has been a tough nut to crack this season. His shot on the power play is top notch, and can be very useful in offensive-zone starts at even strength as well. However, he hasn’t shown the skating ability to play any higher than third-pairing minutes defensively in the AHL. That appears to be the case until you see him perfectly execute a one-on-three rush. Just need to get that foot-speed up, Andrew!

Andrew Nielsen defending at Ricoh
Credit: Christian Bonin

2-0

This goal may have been scored by Grundstrom, but it was the dynamic play of Johnsson all over the ice that allowed Grundstrom to be wide open for the goal. It starts with a Marincin zone-denial that sends Johnsson zipping through the neutral zone so Aaltonen can step into the offensive zone. Johnsson cuts through the middle of the ice and receives the puck cleanly. As he’s drawing defenders towards him, he whips a saucer pass right to the stick of Grundstrom who makes no mistake.

Andreas Johnsson and Carl Grundstrom ccelebrate a goal
Credit: Christian Bonin

After Two

It was a lot of the same in the second period for the Marlies, lots of shots, lots of zone time, and a goal to show for it. After two periods the shots are 25-21 in favour of Toronto and a power play for the team for another 1:35.

Third Period

3-0

Dermott and Johnsson team up for this AHL power play goal, sponsored by the Maple Leafs. After a quick puck retrieval by Engvall from the side of the net, Dermott and Johnsson play catch along the edge of the faceoff circle. Dermott tees up his teammate for a blast that beats an un-screened Demko clean. He didn’t see it coming at all. The two Leafs have definitely given the Marlies that extra boost that they dearly needed after their disastrous trip to New York last week. The two have combined for four points and five shots in this game, Johnsson has points on every goal so far.

For the next 10 minutes, the Marlies shut down the game in the exact way that they have done all season. Five guys behind the puck, clog up the neutral zone, cause turnovers, rinse, and repeat. When the puck does get by the wingers in the neutral zone, the defense — especially Marincin — show off their great ability to disrupt zone entries when given the support.

For the majority of the playoffs, the issue with the defense has been their inability to get things going offensively. With Dermott now in the lineup, that has not been the issue. He has consistently been up in rushes and even starting them himself from his own zone.

With five minutes to go in the game, Demko leaves his net for the extra attacker. The Comets turn the puck over in the neutral zone and Engvall grabs a broken pass just inside the offensive zone. His shot finds the net and the crowd goes wild. However, after a quick video review, Engvall was determined to be offside. I think the linesman caught it but the referee couldn’t hear the signal due to the deafening roar of relief and excitement by the Ricoh faithful.

4-0

This one is for real this time. Smith picks off a pass in the defensive zone and rushes up the ice with his two linemates, Timashov and Mueller. Smith sends the puck left to Timashov at his own blueline because he sees Timashov has space between him and the defender in front of him. Timashov takes a few strides before snapping the puck past both defenders and into the open net. With a lead that large and a group that had just come on the ice, it may have been a good bet to take, but please cross the red line before you shoot, okay Dmytro?

And that’s it! Marlies win the game, and send the Utica Comets to the offseason!

After The Whistle

“There was a sense of urgency coming into this game based on how the previous games went.” - Ben Smith.

“Our schedule guy sent us the text, and right at the bottom it said ‘please be clean shaven.’ Just the dagger.” - Travis Dermott.

“We expect a game 7.” - Andreas Johnsson.

“It’s a do or die game with a one-nothing lead. You get in front of the puck. That’s all you can do. All you can do is not give up on a play, and give yourself the opportunity to make the save.” - Garret Sparks.

“It’s fun to be playing here at the Ricoh Coliseum, in front of the Marlies fans.” - Carl Grundstrom.

“I thought we had really good efforts from everybody. All four lines. All six defensemen. And of course Sparks, he was outstanding.” - Sheldon Keefe.