Arguably the toughest part of the Toronto Marlies schedule so far will end this weekend with the last of three straight weekends featuring three games in three days.

It’ll be the last time the Marlies have to deal with the compact weekend schedule until March, a month that will once again see three consecutive three-in-three weekends.

The upcoming three game schedule begins and ends with a home and home series against Utica, starting off in New York.

Toronto vs. Utica — Friday Dec. 11, 7:00 pm EST in Utica & Sunday, Dec. 13 at 3:00 pm EST in Toronto

The two teams have met once this season in Utica, where the Marlies prevailed 5-4 in the shootout.

Both goaltenders in that game are currently plying their trade in the NHL.

Jacob Markstrom was down on a conditioning stint and put in a performance he was far from happy with, while his adversary Garret Sparks recorded his third straight victory with 32 saves.

In a game neither coach was happy with, Mark Arcobello and William Nylander scored in the shootout while Sparks stopped two of Utica’s shooters to seal the extra point.

Utica’s form has an unbalanced look to it at the moment — they’ve won five straight on the road, but they’ve lost four of their last five at the Memorial Auditorium. A record of 2-0-1 in their last three games has seen them hit two games over .500 as they look to keep tabs on the pacesetters above them in the North Division.

They will be hoping to have leading scorer Hunter Shinkaruk back in action at some point over the weekend. Currently listed as day-to-day, the left winger has scored at point per game pace in the AHL this season. His eleven goal tally is more than double anyone else on the roster and six of those have come on the power play.

Other than Shinkaruk, Utica rely on the likes of forwards Alexandre Grenier, Linden Vey and Carter Bancks. Taylor Fedun has eleven points from the blueline and all four of his goals have been PP markers.

It’s reasonable to expect the Marlies will face goaltender Joe Cannata twice this weekend as Utica have no game on Saturday. Cannata is 3-0-1 through his last four appearances and 7-5-2 overall this season with one shutout.

Toronto at Syracuse — Saturday Dec. 12, 7:00 pm EST

Sandwiched between the Utica’s games is a visit to Syracuse.

The Marlies have faced the Crunch twice on the road this season already, dropping the opener 3-1 but taking the second by the same scoreline in a game that saw Ryan Massa win on debut.

Syracuse are in the midst of a minor slump, dropping their last three games and getting outscored 14-4 in the process.

Decimated by call-ups at times this season, Syracuse have relied on Jeff Tambellini to lead the way with nine goals and 14 points. The centreman is one of the few forwards in good form for the Crunch, having registered four points in as many games. Rookie defenseman Anthony DeAngelo (14 points) continues to produce as does young forward Matthew Peca, a seventh round pick in 2011.

They are still missing the services of Jonathan Marchessault but will have been boosted by the return of fellow right winger Joel Vermin, who has ten points in 13 AHL games this season.

The ace up the sleeve for Syracuse may well be between the pipes, with Tampa Bay deciding to reassign Andrei Vasilevskiy to the Crunch while recalling Kristers Gudlevskis.
Vasilevskiy has two starts in the American Hockey League this season and allowed just a single goal in each game. His first was in the victory against Toronto in which he was absolutely superb turning aside 29 shots.

Syracuse will be looking to stay out of the box as their special teams have struggled, ranked 17th and 18th respectively. The power play has struck just 15 times this season while allowing three shorthanded tallies.

Toronto will be looking to reclaim the top spot in the AHL standings and require just four more goals to hit the 100 mark for the season.

As predicted, Antoine Bibeau has been reassigned by the Leafs and it’s likely that he will receive the start on Saturday while Bernier finishes his conditioning stint with the games against Utica. Rob Madore is still with the Marlies at the time of writing, so a curveball in that regard is still possible.

Both Utica and Syracuse will provide a sterner test than last weekend’s opponents, but it’s how the league-leading Marlies players apply themselves that will matter more than how the opposition plays.