The month of February has officially been a grind for the Toronto Marlies.
Heading into their 13th game in just 22 games, Toronto’s injury list had grown to nine players.
Byron Froese, Milan Michalek, Brendan Leipsic, Marc-Andre Cliche, Kasperi Kapanen, Tobias Lindberg, Brett Findlay, Rich Clune and Rinat Valiev all unavailable.
With Frederik Gauthier also absent after being recalled to the Leafs, this current Marlies line-up was already tired and banged up due to an intense schedule.
It wouldn’t help matters when Garret Sparks would become the tenth injury in the first period of this Saturday night tilt in Hershey.
Facing a Bears teams desperate for points in an ultra-competitive Atlantic Division, the Marlies began with some disciplined play at both ends of the ice.
Travis Dermott forced Joe Cannata into making a shoulder save a minute in, and sixty seconds later an attempt from Justin Holl flashed across the blue paint.
The fourth line was made up of three players who had been plying their trade in Orlando for the most part this season but did not appear out of place during this game. Mason Marchment, Tony Cameranesi and Shane Conacher combined with some precision passing but Cannata snuffed out the chance with a high glove save.
Toronto’s positive start was undone by taking a penalty – Andrew Campbell guilty of a high stick which was assessed as hooking.
The penalty kill stood firm but an individual mistake as Campbell left the box, Brooks Laich would gift Hershey the opening goal. From low on the left boards, Laich inexplicably sent the puck toward the slot area where Christian Thomas was waiting.
Thomas made a fantastic move to fake out Sparks before finding the net with Hershey’s first registered shot on net at the nine minute mark.
Having stretched across his net in an attempt to make what would have been a great save, Garret Sparks appeared to have tweaked his groin, wasting little time in deciding to head off the ice and down the tunnel.
Antoine Bibeau came into the game and had to be alert to deny the home team from drawing further ahead.
Defenseman Tom Gilbert should have done better than to fire high and wide when presented with space in the right circle as Toronto were making life tough for themselves.
A misplay behind the Marlies goal allowed Hershey to crash the net but Bibeau stayed tight to his right post before dropping on the loose puck.
The Marlies best chance to tie up proceedings in the opening period came on their first power play.
Cannata making two great saves as somehow the puck stayed the wrong side of the goal line despite countless rebound opportunities for the road team.
As Zach Sill left the box, the Bears were able to send him away on net. Unable to score on Bibeau, the former Toronto forward would draw a penalty.
Thomas was a constant thorn in the Marlies side, but his two excellent opportunities were denied by glove and shoulder saves from Bibeau.
Having killed this penalty, Toronto put their goaltender under more pressure in the final thirty seconds with two turnovers but dodged both bullets to only trail by a single tally through twenty minutes.
The middle frame would provide plenty of action, with the road team finally able to generate some consistent offense.
The teams swapped an early chance a piece, with Seth Griffith and Jakub Vrana both denied.
It’d take just 2:25 of the second period for Toronto to get on the board, thanks to a fine individual effort.
Colin Smith took a pass from Brooks Laich in stride before bursting between two opponents and across the blue line.
With not much in the way of support, Smith let fly from the right circle, beating Cannata with a shot placed perfectly in the gap between his body and right arm.
It’d take a mere 13 seconds for the visitors to jump into the lead.
William Wrenn with a pinpoint stretch past sent Marchment on a breakaway.
If the rookie forward had any nerves faced with such a golden opportunity, he suppressed them well – beating Cannata blocker side with ease for his first AHL and Toronto Marlies goal.
The Bears responded by creating two partial breakaways. Both turned aside by Bibeau, as Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson were denied.
Toronto built upon those stops by extending their advantage at the midway mark.
Taking a drop pass from Holl, Andreas Johnsson drove to the middle of the ice and from the high slot released a missile of a shot that winged it’s way through a screen in front of Cannata.
The Marlies 3-1 lead would prove short-lived, as their penalties woes came back to haunt them.
Frank Corrado was followed into the box by Cameranesi, presenting the home team with twenty seconds of a two man advantage.
A face-off win enabled the Marlies dump the puck and free Corrado from the box, but it was merely a brief reprieve.
A shot from Djoos was tipped home by Chris Borque, much to the chagrin of Bibeau.
Replay’s looked to show the Hershey forward had scored with his skate and the possibility of a kicking motion. However those aren’t reviewable in the AHL and any argument was always going to be fruitless.
Three minutes after pulling within a goal, Hershey tied up the game with yet another gift.
Toronto lost a series of battles on the left side despite overloading, allowing the Bears to cheaply gain possession.
Darren Dietz was the recipient of the puck in acres of space in the slot and made no mistake.
There was still time left for the Marlies to regain their advantage before the buzzer but it was an opportunity wasted. Dmytro Timashov intercepted a pass in the offensive zone, and dropped the puck back for Laich. The veteran forward did force Cannata into making a save but in truth it was one of his easier stops during a rough second period for the recalled goaltender.
Whoever scored the next goal was likely to take the points and it was the home team who began the brighter. The Bears dominated possession but were kept to the perimeter for the most part with Bibeau not called upon to make a save of note.
A wraparound attempt from Colin Greening almost broke the deadlock. The rebound fell in the crease but neither Seth Griffith or Trevor Moore were able to corral the loose puck.
The game became a little more open at this point, with goal scorer Borque leading a 2-on-1 break. Bibeau flashed the leather to deny him a 217th AHL career tally.
A parade to the penalty box would begin at the nine minute mark with Toronto first to the penalty kill.
It was one of their better efforts when down a man, with Bibeau forced into a single save and his team-mates cleared the crease to avert any further danger.
The Marlies would be robbed of a fourth goal on only their second man advantage of the game. Cannata made two incredible stops, including one to rob Rychel who appeared to have a tap in at the goaltender’s left post
Another turnover from Toronto led to a shorthanded break for the Bears, and though not allowing a goal against, it was back to the penalty kill after a brief spell of 4 on 4.
Travis Boyd would crash an effort against the post before Liam O’Brien netted with twenty seconds left on the man advantage.
There was a little under five minutes remaining but the visitors struggled to create much as tired minds and bodies were guilty of some poor decision making.
Bibeau would be pulled with 1:40 to play and though the majority of that time was spent inside the Hershey zone, the Bears would hold on for a hard fought two points.
Toronto will rue taking far too many stick penalties and individual errors, but at least have some respite in the schedule and an opportunity to rest some weary legs.
Post Game Notes:
Toronto out-shot Hershey 25-23 despite having six penalties called against them.
Special teams were the difference . Hershey’s power play went two for six while Toronto were 0/2.
The Marlies finish February with a 9-3-1-0 record.
Toronto won’t play again until after the NHL trade deadline.
Garret Sparks appeared to tweak his groin (has had groin issues in the past) but that is pure speculation on my part.
Sheldon Keefe said “it doesn’t appear to be that bad, I think he just tweaked something and said he didn’t feel comfortable.”
Mason Marchment’s first goal was also his first AHL point.
Sergey Kalinin recorded his first point with a secondary assist on Johnsson’s goal.
Andreas Johnsson notched his 17th of the season and third in two games.
Antoine Bibeau made 19 saves in relief, keeping Toronto in the game with some outstanding saves.