It’s that time of the season where points, rather than performances, truly matter.
Having taken just three points from their last five games and North Division rivals in good form, the Toronto Marlies needed to get back to winning ways and quickly.
A much changed Toronto line-up included the returning Brendan Leipsic and Cal O’Reilly making his debut.
It was maybe not surprising then, that it was the home team who found their feet early during this Sunday matinee game – opening the scoring with just 2:23 on the clock.
Ryan Olsen won an offensive zone face-off and despite being tight up against the right boards, Nelson Nogier decided to throw the puck on net. His effort was going wide of the target until it took a wicked deflection off William Wrenn, wrong-footing Antoine Bibeau who could not adjust in time to stop the puck sneaking by him.
It took the visiting Marlies just 76 seconds to respond with another slightly bizarre goal.
Andreas Johnsson shot from a bad angle and followed up looking for the rebound. The Swedish winger was bundled into Eric Comrie by a Manitoba defenseman and the puck remained loose in the blue paint, laying inches from the right post. Mike Sislo reacted first to sweep home into the unattended net to level the scores.
Toronto would waste two consecutive power play opportunities, looking out of sorts with a host of new faces lacking cohesion.
Manitoba took heart from their penalty killing exploits and created multiple chances, in part due to some turnovers from the visitors in their own zone.
Brenden Kichton, Kyle Connor, Jimmy Lodge and Darren Kramer all came close to scoring before the home team netted on their first power play.
A shot from Brendan Lemieux was blocked by Brandon Tanev in front. The puck dropped nicely for Tanev to spin and fire past Bibeau before anyone else could react.
Kasperi Kapanen and Brendan Leipsic were both denied by Comrie before Toronto tied up the game for a second time with two minutes remaining.
After breaking up a play in the defensive zone, Brett Findlay and Seth Griffith raced away on an odd man rush. The latter drew the trailing player to him before delivering a perfect saucer pass for Findlay to find the net.
An inadvertent high sticking penalty for Andrew Campbell would present Manitoba with a four minute power play either side of the intermission. Before the buzzer would sound, Bibeau would have to stay alert to stop Jack Roslovic, who had somehow been gifted space low in the slot.
Toronto killed the remainder of the penalty to begin the second period and took the lead with less than three minutes played. It was almost a carbon copy of the second tally but on this occasion Kerby Rychel ignored his team-mate and slotted his shot past Comrie.
The home team were undeterred by falling behind and should have tied up the game through the impressive Connor.
It wouldn’t take long however for a response, as the Moose struck for a second time with the man advantage.
Patrice Cormier was under no pressure all alone in front of Bibeau and swept home a rebound on his backhand.
Toronto should really have retaken the lead at the eight minute mark but Comrie made an incredible acrobatic save to rob Sislo of a certain goal after a set up from Johnsson.
A fifth straight penalty saw Toronto back on the PK at the midway mark but they survived as Dan DeSalvo fired high on the best opportunity for the hosts.
The Moose were in the ascendancy despite not being able to score a third with the extra man and looked the more likely to take a slender lead into the second intermission.
That was until the final seconds of the period when an inexcusable giveaway presented Findlay with possession to the side of the goal. He dished off to Griffith who appeared odds on to score, but Comrie once again pulled off a wonderful save to ensure the game remained tied.
Manitoba would only record three shots in the final twenty minutes but that far from told the tale of the third period.
Toronto were the better team to being with and took a deserved lead seven minutes in. Strong play on the wall from O’Reilly ensured the Marlies kept possession behind the net and led to Johnsson being able to deliver a pass to Sislo out front. The latter’s effort struck the post from the slot but Wrenn was on hand to tuck home the rebound.
Upon the resumption of play, the home team struck the iron before heading on yet another power play.
Toronto’s PK put in their best effort of the game thus far but the game would tied once again at the ten minute mark.
A pass from Jimmy Lodge across the blue line to Ryan Olsen seemed to befuddle the Marlies, as three players watched the Manitoba centre man drive across the crease and score, after eluding Bibeau’s intended poke check.
The action failed to relent as thirty seconds passed before Toronto were awarded a power play. It was their first since the seventh minute of the game and they made it count.
After a spell of sustained pressure it was a bullet of a shot from Andrew Nielsen that presented a rebound opportunity that Rychel swooped upon for his second goal of the game.
There was plenty of time for the hosts to respond – seven minutes in fact, but it was Toronto who appeared more likely to score next.
Frederik Gauthier, O’Reilly and Greening were all denied by Comrie ,who was doing his level best to give his team some hope.
With Comrie pulled from the net, Manitoba came within an inch or two of levelling proceedings with 75 seconds remaining. Kichton ripped a shot from the slot that hit the crossbar flush and dropped down into the crease.
It was the closest the Moose would come to tying up the game as Toronto held on for the crucial two points.
Sheldon Keefe will not be happy with this defensive display from his team but will undoubtedly be pleased by his team’s attitude in digging deep for victory in what turned out to be a wild affair.
Final: Toronto Marlies 5 @Manitoba Moose 4
Post Game Notes:
Toronto remain third in the North Division, with six points separating the top five teams.
Toronto have won six of seven in the season series against Manitoba but four of the games have been decided by a solitary goal.
Kerby Rychel recorded his second three-point outing of the season. A pair of goals takes his seasonal tally to fifteen.
Andreas Johnsson and Seth Griffith both registered two assists.
Goals in consecutive games for Mike Sislo, who slowly seems to be finding that confidence that may have eluded him in San Antonio.
Antoine Bibeau’s statistics from this game are ugly but he came up with some big saves at different times. There was a distinct lack of help in front of him and a great deal of misfortune on the first goal against.
No points on debut for Cal O’Reilly and he wasn’t helped by the fact Toronto spent a portion of this game short-handed. There was plenty to like about his performance alongside Andreas Johnsson and Mike Sislo and signs of early chemistry.
Dmytro Timashov and Trevor Moore were healthy scratches to make way for news faces.
Rich Clune isn’t far away from a return, possibly Tuesday when these teams do battle again.
Garret Sparks remains injured and has not travelled with the team. J.P Anderson is Toronto’s backup goaltender.