During the last campaign, the Toronto Marlies fought and scrapped their way into the playoffs, winning the last game of the regular season to finish with forty wins.
It’s quite incredible then, that they’ve managed the same feat with 23 games of the 2015/16 season still to play and are on course to finish as the best team in the AHL.
It was far from plain sailing at the ACC as the Portland Pirates played a very good road game as their record this season suggested they would.
The Marlies began well off the opening shift with Frederick Gauthier’s line setting a good tone but Andrew Campbell would be denied by rookie goaltender Sam Brittain.
Turnovers from the Marlies was a theme running through the opening period and Garret Sparks had to be alert to turn aside efforts from Wayne Simpson and Tyler Sikura. Portland’s leading scorer, Rob Schremp, might be in a slump right now but he’s a skilled player and afforded the puck in a dangerous position, Sparks was again called to the rescue.
It was with some fortune that Toronto were presented a power play but they failed to capitalise on the gift. Tobias Lindberg tested Brittain whilst trying to go top shelf while Sparks denied John McFarland from tallying a short-handed marker.
Toronto would have to kill a penalty of their own, which they did with ease barring yet another turnover that allowed Portland three straight chances that Sparks did well to stop.
Sparks would make 14 saves in the opening frame but none better than the one to deny McFarland again with 2:30 left in the period.
Until something of a late surge themselves, Toronto had only fired three shots on Brittain.
Connor Brown was able to escape the attentions of his opponent before throwing a pass out in front for Brendan Leipsic. Unfortunately the puck bounced over the stick of Leipsic and although it fell into the wheelhouse of T.J Brennan, Brittain was equal to his attempt.
Toronto were the beneficiary of another power play that carried into the second period but again there were no real openings created. Shortly after killing the penalty, Portland took a deserved lead.
Defenseman Brett Regner with the long range shot from the right boards that weaved it’s way through traffic and past an unsighted Sparks.
Far from sitting on their laurels, the Pirates came hard at Toronto, forcing Sparks into three straight saves, looking to double their lead.
Dylan Olsen certainly wasn’t shy of shooting at every chance he fired one such blast that Sparks was unable to grasp into his body and Rocco Grimaldi probably should have buried the rebound.
A third power play for Toronto came and went without incident as the home team were struggling to generate much offense at this point.
It was a turnover from Portland that seemed to turn the tide a little as Frattin’s spin and shoot attempt fizzled just wide of the post. The tying goal came courtesy of some hard work deep in the Toronto zone. Lindberg with the hit along the left boards freed the puck and Campbell would come away with possession on the opposite side. Looking up, the Marlies captain saw Lindberg straddling the Pirates blue line and sent a perfect forward pass. Faking a forehand shot, Lindberg dished a backhand pass to his left and there was Gauthier on hand to put home his fourth goal of the season. One goal has so often brought two for the Marlies this season and this occasion would prove no different. A turnover from Connor Brickley handed the puck to Leipsic and away the Marlies went on a rush. Leipsic’s initial shot and Brown’s rebound attempt were both saved but the puck fell back to Rinat Valiev. The rookie defenseman showed real maturity to not just unload a booming shot but instead shifted the puck to Leipsic in a better position to his right. Despite falling in the process, the Winnipeg native scored on a one time effort to put Toronto up 2-1.
The Marlies would earn yet another power play thanks to excellent work from Nikita Soshnikov but barring a pair of shots from Lindberg, they were once again toothless with the extra man.
Portland did not have the appearance of a team that would tamely fold, despite trailing after forty minutes. Earning themselves a power play early in the third period, they almost tied the game. Schremp with the pass-come-shot to McFarland alone in front but Sparks turned aside the redirection attempt and the penalty kill prevailed.
Derek Arnold may only have been playing in the sixth AHL game of his career but he brought the very best out of Sparks during a goalmouth scramble back at even strength.
Toronto finally responded to five minutes of pressure from the visitors by creating a gilt edge chance of their own. Matt Frattin controlling the play and from behind the net laid a beautiful pass into the wheelhouse of Stuart Percy jumping into the slot but his shot would only serve to knock the helmet off Brittain, who was fortunately fine.
Connor Brickley was the man at fault for Toronto’s second goal and he came as close as any Pirates player to tying the game. The first shot bouncing awkwardly off Sparks before putting the second effort off the outside of the post.
At the mid-way mark of the period the Marlies finally put some distance between themselves and their stubborn opponents on the scoreboard. Brown took a huge hit inside his own zone to make the pass to Findlay on the left boards. Wasting no time at all, Findlay chipped the puck by two opponents, sending Leipsic in alone on net. It was a highlight finish from Leipsic who faked at least three times before scoring with a delightful backhand shot.
With six minutes remaining, Brett Findlay wanted himself some of that Leipsic action and a beautiful curl and drag move enabled him to evade two Portland players but Brittain came out to smother his goal bound attempt.
The confidence was flowing through the Marlies and it was Kasperi Kapanen turning provider for Campbell in the slot once more but Brittain kept his team in the game with a fine stop.
Portland should have made it a close game with a shade under four minutes to play but Grimaldi conspired to whiff on a second opportunity after Olsen’s shot has provided a huge rebound.
The road team’s last hurrah would come via a delay of game penalty courtesy of David Kolomatis.
Pulling Brittain, the Pirates went with six attackers and would have pulled within a goal but for more brilliance from Sparks. Corbyn Knight with the perfect cross ice feed to Grimaldi waiting in the left circle but Sparks had anticipated the play and got himself across his net in time to deny the huge one time shot.
A third victory for Sparks at the ACC but the first for the Toronto Marlies, such is the way of this astounding season.
Post Game Notes:
A 37 save performance from Garret Sparks who was back to his best after some iffy performances of late. He’s only twice made more saves in a victory this season, 39 and 38 respectively against Grand Rapids Griffins.
After 37 games, Brendan Leipsic had eight goals to his name. A pair in this game took his total to 16 this season and he’s riding a four game point streak.
Frederick Gauthier is never going to put up points like William Nylander but does a lot of the unglamorous work for his team-mates that often goes unnoticed. Nikita Soshnikov has flourished alongside him, as has new recruit Tobias Lindberg. A fourth goal for Gauthier and his 14th point of the season.
A welcome return to action for Sam Carrick, who although wasn’t at game pace, didn’t let his team down and played a part on the penalty kill.
It’s all too easy to say that Brett Findlay is only flourishing because he’s playing between Leipsic and Brown. He’s as key a cog on this line as the other two as his deft pass for the third goal emphasised.
Three goals and an assist for Findlay in his last three games.