Home loss puts Comets on the brink
UTICA — For the first time in this year's postseason, the Utica Comets face elimination. The team lost 5-2 at home Wednesday to the Toronto Marlies and must win Friday to force a deciding Game 5.
The Marlies, the top seed in the North Division, had given up 12 goals in the first two games of the best-of-five division semifinal series but the teams split the first two games, both in Toronto. The Marlies took Game 1 in overtime, 6-5. Utica responded with a 7-2 win to tie the series.
On Wednesday, Toronto got reinforcements in goal with Erik Källgren sent down from its NHL parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs. He stepped in to replace Keith Petruzzelli, who surrendered a dozen goals in the first two games of the series. Källgren made 24 saves in the Game 3 win.
The teams were tied after 40 minutes but Toronto took its third one-goal lead of the game in the third. A turning point came with 9:20 left in regulation when Marc Johnstone of Toronto was assessed a double minor for high-sticking. But not only did the Comets not equalize but it was Toronto that had the two best scoring chances. After the Marlies killed off the Comets' man advantage, they reestablished their two-goal lead when Kyle Clifford hit Pontus Holmberg as he drove the Utica net and scored with 3:48 left. A shorthanded, empty net goal by Holmberg sealed the win when his clearance kicked off the boards in the neutral zone and trickled across the goal line just before a Comets defender could clear it away. That made it 5-2 with 1:20 left.
"He certainly had a solid night," said Comets' head coach Kevin Dineen of Källgren. But, he said, Utica was frustrated on a night when its scoring chances were limited. Why? "With the amount of chances we were giving up I don't think we created as much as we have over the last two or three weeks."
And when the team couldn't tie the game while a man up, "it felt like that was an emotional letdown for our group," Dineen said. "The power-play's been a thorn in our side all year long and tonight that was magnified."
Utica team captain Ryan Schmelzer said the failure to score on the late power-play was "pretty disappointing," and he added, "We had a glorious chance there. A four-minute power-play you expect something to happen." The team had too many turnovers and didn't generate enough offense, he said. "I don't know if it was a lack of urgency or what but we just didn't make enough plays in that moment. Everybody knows it."
Ryan Chyzowski drew first blood for the Marlies when he scored just shy of five minutes into the game. He took a cross-ice feed and fired a wrist shot past Nico Daws on the short side over the blocker.
Clifford pushed the lead to two when he converted a penalty shot five minutes into the second period. He faked the shot and roofed a backhand to make it 2-0.
The Comets responded 32 seconds later. Aarne Talvitie got his third goal of the playoffs when he redirected a shot from the point by Robbie Russo. Russo and Timur Ibragimov earned assists on the goal.
Pressure by the Comets on the Marlies in their own zone turned into a goal for the home team. After a turnover, Šimon Nemec took a feed as he cut down the middle and he snapped off a shot to beat Källgren and tie the game at 2-2 with just over two minutes left in the second period. It was Nemec's first playoff goal in his AHL rookie year. Nolan Stevens and Graeme Clarke each collected assists.
"We took it to them in the second and we thought we'd continue that momentum in the third," Schmelzer said. "They got one and we were just chasing all period."
Chyzowski got his second goal of the game 4:34 into the third when he jammed at the puck at the side of the net a few times until he forced it past Daws to make it 3-2 in favor of the Marlies.
Now the Comets have to win two in a row against Toronto or their season is over.
"When you're in a do-or-die situation there has to be a level of, it's not a pushback, it's setting a tone, staying with it," Dineen said. "A level of composure but desperation that goes into that as well." He added, "We're in a desperation stage. We look forward to going back to Toronto Sunday" for Game 5.
To do so, the team has to stick with the foundation of the its game, Dineen said. That means speed and making quality decisions in the neutral zone with the puck. On Wednesday, "We gave up quality opportunities. We gave up breakaways," and when his team had the puck there was "not enough sustained pressure."
"We know where we're at," Schmelzer said. "Backs against the wall here. We're a pretty calm group. No panic. We still feel like if we play the way we want to play the series should be ours." The pressure, he said, "It's going to fuel the fire for sure." Now, he said, the Comets have to adopt a "never-say-die mentality."
Game 4 is at 7 p.m. Friday in Utica. If a fifth game is necessary, it will be at 4 p.m. on Sunday in Toronto.
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