School day games with early starts can often be strange affairs.
Toronto crossed the border to pay a visit to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
These two teams used to have epic battles but with the landscape of the AHL changed, this was only the second meeting of the season.
It wouldn’t take long for the ill feelings to re-emerge however.
The Griffins were unbeaten in regulation at home in a run stretching back to November 6, but that record fell with a pair of defeats to Rochester this past weekend.
It was no surprise then that it was the home team who began the better, spending the majority of the opening ten minutes in the Marlies zone.
Ironically the Griffins best opportunity came after the otherwise superb Garret Sparks misplayed the puck to the side of his net, but team-mates came to his aid to deny the home team a clear scoring chance.
Opposition teams have been trying to intimidate the Marlies of late, using illegal tactics at times.
Grand Rapids Captain Jeff Hoggan, took it upon himself to take a run at T.J Brennan. The former was called for boarding while Brennan was slow to get to his feet under the guidance and concern of Luc Leblanc. Thankfully Brennan was fine to continue and jumped on the power play. There’d be nothing doing with the man advantage despite a couple of good looks, but it did turn the tide of the game.
Rinat Valiev ringing a shot of the crossbar as Toronto began to assert control for the first time.
Jakub Kindl would test Sparks with a snapshot after a broken play that began Toronto’s net.
That would prove a big save as the Marlies went and opened the scoring shortly afterwards.
In what looked an innocuous looking play in the left circle, Mark Arcobello released a beauty of a backhand shot that totally handcuffed Jared Coreau before nestling in the back of his net.
The lead would be doubled 95 seconds later.
A face-off in the left circle was won by Arcobello and he sent the puck his right where Frattin remarkably had space in the slot. It was like the Frattin of old as his wrist shot blitzed by Coreau in the blink of an eye.
The remaining five minutes of the opening frame was all about Toronto and they were slightly unfortunate not to extend their advantage. Casey Bailey tipping a shot from Viktor Loov, only fractionally wide as the seconds wound down.
The middle period was notable for the aggression level stepping up a notch as nine penalties were called and the officials were guilty of losing control somewhat. Less than two minutes in and Ryan Rupert sent Brendan Leipsic away down the right side. From his off-wing, Leipsic so very nearly beat Coreau five-hole with the Griffins netminder nervously looking behind him to check whether the puck had squeezed between his pads. Every whistle after a save was bringing a scrum in front of the net as the animosity grew.
Sparks only had to make seven saves in the first period but from the middle frame on, he would continue to frustrate a Griffins team who had been shutout in their last outing.
Andreas Athanasiou had some room on the left wing, testing Sparks with a stinging shot that produced a an excellent rebound chance for Eric Tangradi. Sparks wasn’t for beating and produced a wonderful save from the latter.
If Toronto were caught somewhat flatfooted on that occasion, they were for sure a minute or so later.
Tomas Nosek leading an odd man rush and chose to drive to the net, cutting across Sparks who stonewalled the left winger. The play switched immediately to the other end of the ice and who else but Connor Brown roofed a shot over Coreau to make it 3-0 Marlies
Three penalties in two minutes ruined the flow of what was an exciting tilt at even strength and both teams lost any rhythm they had for a while.
With eight minutes to play the Griffins had a spell of sustained pressure and Sparks made a top notch glove save to rob Anthony Mantha. That came mere seconds after Sparks had to be alert in turning aside Nathan Paestch and Tangradi.
The rough stuff finally boiled over at the 14 minute mark. Marlies Captain Andrew Campbell earning himself a ten minute misconduct penalty for unsportsmanlike behaviour. A curious call but the officials had somewhat lost the plot at this stage after not clamping down on altercations earlier in the game
Inside the last 60 seconds and Sparks would be required to makes saves thirteen and fourteen of the period to ensure his team’s three goal lead stood.
Sparks may have been having a great game but he also required some luck in the third period.
A stoppage 90 seconds in due to some bad ice, saw the Marlies switch off upon resumption of play and they were thoroughly out-played and out-shot in the finale frame of regulation.
Martin Frk was unlucky to see his backhand shot hit the post and go to safety.
Rookie defenseman Rickie Russo brought a good blocker save from Sparks who must have known it was his day on the next play. A shot from the point by Paetsch was redirected in front by Tangradi.
The puck beat Sparks, trickling towards the net but hit the post and stayed out. Athanasiou would jump on the rebound by Sparks had regained his position and although having to perform some juggling, kept out the second effort.
Hemmed in their own zone, the Marlies were running around and Todd Bertuzzi found Frk with a great pass. All alone in front, Frk was dumbfounded as Sparks slid across to rob him.
Grand Rapids seven minute domination of Toronto would not produce a goal and the road team almost increased their lead on the first shot of the third period. A rush from the fourth line and Coreau made an excellent stop to deny Eric Faille.
A power play would present Grand Rapids with another chance to get into the game but Mark Zengerle was the next to be turned aside by Sparks.
Back at even strength it was Louis-Marc Aubry and Zengerle with good looks but both efforts were rebuffed by Sparks.
The home team’s last throw of the dice game with six minutes remaining. Marlies guilty of a too many men penalty and the Griffins immediately pulled Coreau for a two man advantage.
Toronto stood tall despite good pressure from Grand Rapids and would ice the game as Matt Frattin rejoined the action from the penalty box. Nikita Soshnikov winning the possession battle in his own zone along the right boards and dug the puck up the win for Frattin. The winger burst past his two opponents, doing well to keep his feet despite almost being hauled down, and slid the puck into the empty cage.
The emphasis was on getting the shutout for Sparks and the Marlies played like a nervous team, not one holding a 4-0 lead. After a turnover deep inside their own zone, Toronto allowed the home team to generate one last chance with thirty seconds left on the clock.
Sparks made his 39th save of the game to preserve the shutout and yet another road victory for this juggernaut of a team.
Post Game Notes:
Garret Sparks’ third shutout of the season but easily his best. That’s Sparks’ tenth win of the season in just 14 games and improves his save percentage to 0.937.
A fifth straight multi-point game for Mark Arcobello who continues his incredible tear through this AHL season.
Connor Brown netted his third goal in two games. A great finish from him and there must be more left in the tank once he’s fully into game shape.
Toronto’s goal differential is now a mind boggling +71 and they own a winning percentage of .800.
Stuart Percy was a late scratch and Justin Holl came in to make his comeback from injury.