The Toronto Marlies faced a daunting task on a rare Wednesday night tilt at Ricoh Coliseum.
Wilkes-Barre Scranton are atop the AHL standings, the leading goal scorers and winners of 25 of their 35 games.
They’ve won four straight in 2017, after having a seven game win streak snapped at the end of last year.
Amongst their ranks is the hugely impressive Jake Guentzel, who scored twice on his NHL debut and is the AHL’s leading rookie scorer with 38 points.
A strong, positive start would be required from the Marlies to hang tough with the league’s best but it was the visitors who began brightly.
The speed and pressure of the Pens ensured they owned the opening ten minutes of the game in terms of zone time, but Toronto battled well and kept them to the outside.
The first real chance of any note took over eight minutes to transpire.
A long range shot from Tom Kostopoulos, produced a juicy rebound from the pads of Garret Sparks, with the puck falling into the wheelhouse of Dominik Simon. Toronto’s goaltender redeemed himself with a fine right pad save to deny the WBS centreman.
Slowly but surely Toronto found their feet offensively, and created a couple of half chances at the midway mark.
Colin Greening had the first real opportunity with seven minutes remaining in the period but fired wide from in tight.
Sixty seconds later and the Marlies were indebted to Sparks, who scrambled to deny Josh Archibald and Simon once again.
Kasperi Kapanen was involved in Toronto’s two best openings to end the period. Firstly firing a wicked wrist shot from the high slot that brought a rebound that eluded his team-mates.
Kapanen then led an odd man rush but Greening fluffed his lines in front of goal.
As they did in the opening frame, WBS came out strong in the second and really should have pulled ahead inside three minutes.
Ethan Prow from the slot and then Ryan Haggerty from the right circle, were both turned aside by Sparks.
Toronto first opportunity of the period came courtesy of some wonderful crisp passing from Greening, Andrew Nielsen and Kapanen, with the latter robbed by Tristan Jarry.
Less than sixty seconds later and the home team caught a break after being caught napping, as WBS transitioned with speed. The trailing man on the play was Jake Guentzel, who rang his effort off the post.
After almost half a game without any penalties, three infractions were called in less than five minutes.
Toronto’s first power play saw them go close through Colin Smith and Dmytro Timashov. The latter waiting too long before releasing his effort on net.
WBS would strike the iron for the second time on their first power play. It was that man Simon again, but this time his effort clipped the top of the crossbar and bounced high into the netting.
Toronto would waste their next man advantage and almost allow a short-handed goal. Nielsen guilty of giving the puck away with a casual drop pass, allowing Haggerty in on goal, but Sparks came to the rookie defenseman’s rescue.
The first goal of the game would come from an unlikely source but there was no luck about the finish.
A shot from Frank Corrado was deflected behind the net and Tony Cameranesi reacted quickest to regain possession. Curling around the net to the left of the goal, Cameranesi let fly from the bottom of the circle and beat Jarry with a blistering shot that found the twine via the underside of the crossbar.
Toronto could have doubled their lead a minute later but Andreas Johnsson failed to test Jarry with a backhand effort on a partial breakaway.
Another power play opportunity presented itself to Toronto but it lasted just twelve seconds after another error. Nielsen was caught the wrong side of Blueger after a giveaway and a penalty was probably a fair call. It was certainly a piece of embellishment from the Pens forward, who appeared to throw himself to the ice and a pair of penalties should have been the result.
During the 4-on-4 play to finish the period, it was the visitors who looked most likely to score but it was Toronto who would hold a narrow lead through forty minutes.
Handing the league leaders a power play 89 seconds into the third period would not have been part of the game plan set out during the second intermission.
Toronto’s penalty killed was excellent however and they came close to netting a short-handed tally.
Leipsic leading the rush down the left, choosing to pass instead of shoot, but Cameranesi’s outstretched stick was unable to deflect the puck toward goal after driving hard to the net.
It was a real dagger blow then, when seconds after the PK unit did it’s job so well, that Toronto handed the visitors a tying goal.
Battling in the left corner of his own zone, Travis Dermott elected to chip the puck down the middle of the ice instead of up the boards.
The only player there was Guentzel, who has time to stroll uncontested into the slot area, before firing past Sparks for his 20th goal of the season.
Toronto’s would respond with a fine shift but were unable to re-gain the lead.
Greening failed to hit the target on two occasions and then relieved the pressure with a miss-played pass after Kapanen’s effort was saved by Jarry.
Toronto’s penalty kill went back to work with nine minutes on the clock and once more shut down the visitors.
They could have scored short-handed and perhaps they did?
The livewire Cameranesi picked off an errant pass before racing away alone on Jarry. Attempting to go to the goaltender’s left, Jarry slid across and fell to a heap in the crease to make the save, but no one could be sure whether the puck had crossed the goal line. With no official having gotten themselves behind the net, surely they would use the video review system? Unbelievably that wasn’t to be the case and play continued.
If the Marlies proved unlucky on the previous incident, they were certainly getting help from the iron as WBS hit the post once again with seven minutes remaining. Blueger striking his shot against the upright from the slot after a scrambled play fell kindly for him.
Toronto’s propensity for individual errors would cost them dearly once again and the visitors proved why they are the AHL’s best by pouncing.
Greening coughed the puck up cheaply in the offensive zone, allowing Derrick Pouliot to carry the puck with speed through the neutral zone.
Viktor Loov went for an ill-advised, huge hip-check just outside the blue line, taking him out of the play and the Pens now had a 2-on-1. Pouliot dished off to Tom Sestito who buried his shot high into the net to give him team a 2-1 lead.
With just three minutes to play, Toronto did all they can to salvage at least a point but WBS proved very adept at denying clear attempts on net and second opportunities.
The best chance came in the dying seconds of the game.
Smith drove to the net from the left side but saw his effort denied and Tobias Lindberg was unable to corral the rebound as the final buzzer sounded.
A decent display against a very good hockey team but Toronto once again threw away points because of avoidable individual errors.
Post Game Notes:
Tony Cameranesi scored his first goal of the season and continues to make a case for an extended stay with the Marlies.
Frank Corrado recorded his first assist of the season.
Dmytro Timashov led the way with five shots but is still struggling to find the twine this season.
Garret Sparks gave up a few big rebounds but otherwise made some important saves. Certainly not at fault for the two goals and stopped 32 of 34 shots.