The half century has been reached.
In what continues to be an amazing season for the Toronto Marlies, they achieved their 50th win with six games still to play.
The Grand Rapids Griffins have been a fierce rivals in recent seasons, with strongly fought playoff series and line brawls during regular season games.
Despite the former divisional opponents now being separated into different conferences, the dislike has been evident in three previous games this season (which the Marlies all won) and this encounter was no different.
It took all of 100 seconds for the physicality to begin with Xavier Ouellet laying the boom on Connor Brown, though the Marlies forward bounced right back up.
The first save and hold of the game from Antoine Bibeau brought a scrum and no surprise to see Tyler Bertuzzi involved, with Connor Carrick squaring upto the Griffins forward.
Toronto would draw the first power play of the game just two minutes in but forced Jared Correau into just a single save as the visitors penalty kill did a fine job of not allowing the home team to set up.
It was a case of the Marlies keeping things simple in the early going, trying to find lanes to shoot and looking for second and third opportunities. Correau did well to hang onto a sharp shot from Leivo while Clune’s bad angle drive brought a rebound that only just evaded Colin Smith driving hard to the crease.
It would be sheer hard work and graft that led to the opening goal for the home team. Zach Hyman twisting and turning to keep possession along the boards before Ben Smith took up the reigns.
Smith turned and fired on net after creating space, and on-hand was Hyman who had driven to net, to bang home the rebound at the third attempt.
Louis-Marc Aubry would find himself the centre of attention as Grand Rapids went quickly hunting a tying goal. His wrist shot denied by Bibeau, Aubry went after the puck in the corner and took down young defensemen Ty Stanton. Appearing from almost nowhere was Rich Clune, and his gloves were off in an instance as he jumped the wrong Griffins player, with all hell breaking loose.
The fall-out would be a four minute power play for the Griffins.
Zach Hyman was the league’s leading short-handed goal scorer before his call-up and he had a chance to grab his fifth of the season. Breaking away on a rush, he choose to thread the eye of a needle with a pass to Ben Smith and the chance was cut off by a trailing defensemen.
Martin Frk and Connor Carrick were the next to head to the box as the three officials well and truly had their hands full at this stage.
Toronto would kill the full four minutes of the penalty thanks to some fine saves from Bibeau but back at even strength, the team relaxed somewhat.
A turnover in front would result in the easiest of opportunities for Dan Cleary to tie the game and the veteran rarely misses.
As they did Friday night, Toronto responded well to conceding a goal and pressurised immediately
David Kolomatis was shooting on sight and one of his efforts produced a rebound that fell nicely for Connor Brown. The right winger fed Mark Arcobello, who had Correau beaten but Aubry stuck out a leg to deflect the puck high. Snake bitten of late, that sums up Arcobello’s lack of puck luck at the moment.
Josh Leivo and Connor Brown were the next to go close while Rinat Valiev had to make a tremendous diving play to deny Tomas Nosek on an odd-man rush.
A horrible looking spear by Mark Zengerle on Arcobello left the Marlies forward in considerable discomfort towards the end of the period. A cheap shot of the worst kind and away from the play, the officials rightly handed Zengerle a major and a match misconduct penalties to curtail his evening
Hyman, Frattin and Leivo came close in the final seconds but the game would be tied after twenty minutes of play.
It took over two and a half minutes for the Marlies to set up in Griffins zone in the second period but they made it pay when finally doing so.
A beautiful tic-tac-toe play that resulted in Brown firing home after assistance from Leivo and Hyman.
After once again taking a deserved lead, the home team gifted Grand Rapids a second tying goal.
A turnover on the right boards allowing Eric Tangradi to pick out Andy Miele in front.
Miele is a class act at this level and he showed excellent patience from the slot to out-wait Bibeau, before slotting the puck top shelf.
Toronto were lucky to escape just two minutes later with yet another piece of sloppy play. Ty Stanton guilty of a rookie mistake by wasting three opportunities to play the puck away from danger before being pounced on by two opponents. Bibeau came to his aid with a fine save, clinging on as Bertuzzi was sniffing around for any second chance.
That proved a big stop from the Quebec native as Toronto once more took the lead. Hyman with more hard work to keep the puck alive at the blue line this time, allowing Shane Conacher to carry possession toward the net. Conacher played pitch and catch with Ben Smith before driving across Correau and chipping home with a sweet backhand finish. Coolness personified was the rookie as he tallied his first professional goal.
Not to be outdone however was Tony Cameranesi.
Nine seconds after the restart, Cameranesi received a banked pass off the right boards from Taylor Doherty. Driving to the net despite the attentions of a Griffins defensemen, Cameranesi outfought his opponent and though losing his balance, fired his shot by Correau. A special moment for the young man with everyone on the bench seemingly happier than him if the celebrations were anything to go by!
In what was a much more controlled and quieter period as far as the officials were concerned, the only penalty was called with 2:30 to play and Josh Leivo the offender. Toronto’s penalty kill was again excellent, denying the Griffins any efforts of note and the home team headed into the final frame with a 4-2 lead.
Doubtless with the voice of head coach Todd Nelson ringing in their ears, the Griffins came out firing early in the third and halved the deficit in 32 seconds.
Again it was a bit of a gift as Connor Carrick failed to make a play and allowed himself to be a target into the boards. Tangradi was the man responsible and he swiftly moved the puck to that man Miele again in front and it was a 4-3 hockey game.
The visitors were on the power play just forty seconds later and could easily have tied things up.
Miele with the chance for the hat-trick but Bibeau refused to bite and stood tall to make the save on the top shelf effort. Lots of the Griffins best work was through Tangradi and he tuned provider again, this time for Mitch Callahan but one more Bibeau came to the rescue.
As the penalty was about to expire, Kyle Criscuolo showed a lightening turn of speed through the neutral zone and into the Marlies end. Rounding the entire defense, Bibeau made the initial stop on his first shot and was grateful for Toronto’s defense getting behind him to ensure the puck wouldn’t cross the line.
The Marlies power play may not have been at all good this season but recently it’s begun to fire and it struck for the second time at the seven minute mark.
A heads up play from Brendan Leipsic found Ben Smith in tight but his effort unfortunately only found the iron. A looping rebound made it’s way to namesake Colin, who couldn’t quite force the issue, so Ben followed up his initial shot to slot his third goal in two games.
The visitors last real opportunity to get anything from this encounter came at the midway mark of the period. Bibeau was forced to come way out of his net to play the puck to deny a breakaway but his clearance fell straight to a Griffins forward. Enter David Kolomatis into the action. Channelling his inner Andrew Campbell, Kolomatis’ words not mine, the defenseman pulled off an impressive shot block to the huge delight of his team-mates and the 7000+ inside Ricoh Coliseum.
That seemed to take the wind out of the visitors sails somewhat and the game would be done and dusted as a contest with a little over six minutes to play.
Another fantastic piece of swift puck movement from the Marlies as Colin Smith and Leipsic combined to tee up Sam Carrick for a one time blast that blew by Correau and into the net.
Bibeau would only be required to make a few solid if unspectacular saves to clinch a momentous 50th win of the season.
Post Games Notes:
The Toronto Marlies tied their franchise high for wins in a season with 50, last accomplished in the 2007-08 season (80 games).
Toronto won the special teams battle going two for four, while killing all four opportunities for Grand Rapids.
Antoine Bibeau recorded his 25th win of the season and his 40th as a member of the Toronto Marlies.
Tony Cameranesi first professional goal also turned out to be the game winner.
Shane Conacher registered his first point as a professional and then his first goal.
Sam Carrick’s offensive form continues, netting his 15th of the season, a new AHL career high for him.
Zach Hyman and Ben Smith both had a goal and two assists, while Colin Smith recorded three helpers.
Not his most effective game, but Brendan Leipsic registered two assists, taking his points tally to 52 in 61 games.