Leipsic’s double strike sinks Pirates

During the 2014-15 campaign, the Toronto Marlies fought and scrapped their way into the playoffs, winning the last game of the regular season to finish with 40 wins.

It’s quite incredible, then, that they’ve managed the same feat with 23 games of the 2015-16 season still left to play.

It was far from plain sailing at the ACC Saturday afternoon. The Portland Pirates played a good road game, just as their record this season suggested they would.

The Marlies started well off the opening shift, with Frederik Gauthier’s line setting the right tone, but Andrew Campbell was denied by rookie goaltender Sam Brittain.

Turnovers from the Marlies became a theme throughout the opening period. Garret Sparks had to be alert to turn aside efforts from Wayne Simpson and Tyler Sikura. Portland’s leading scorer, Rob Schremp, might be in a slump right now but he’s a skilled player and was afforded the puck in a dangerous position, with Sparks again coming to the rescue.

Toronto were fortunate to receive the first powerplay, but they failed to capitalize on the gift. Tobias Lindberg tested Brittain while trying to go top shelf before Sparks denied John McFarland from tallying a shorthanded marker.

Toronto then had to kill a penalty of their own, which they did with ease, barring yet another turnover that allowed Portland a third straight chance for Sparks to turn aside.

Sparks made 14 saves in the opening frame, none better than on McFarland again with 2:30 left in the period. Until a surge late in the period, Toronto had only fired three shots on Brittain.

Toronto were the beneficiary of another powerplay that carried into the second frame, but again there were no real openings created. Shortly after killing the penalty, Portland took a deserved lead. Defenseman Brett Regner’s long-range shot from the right boards weaved its way through traffic and past an unsighted Sparks.

Far from sitting on their laurels, the Pirates came hard at Toronto, forcing Sparks into three consecutive saves.

A third powerplay for Toronto came and went without incident as the home team were struggling to generate much offense at this point.

It was a turnover from Portland that seemed to turn the tide a little as Frattin’s spin-and-shoot attempt fizzled just wide of the post.

The tying goal came courtesy of some hard work deep in the Toronto zone with five minutes to play in the second period. Lindberg’s hit along the left boards freed up the puck and Campbell came away with possession on the opposite side. Looking up, the Marlies captain saw Lindberg straddling the Pirates blueline and sent a perfect forward pass. Faking a forehand shot, Lindberg dished a backhand pass to his left and Gauthier was on hand to put home his fourth of the season.

One goal has so often brought two for the Marlies this season, and this occasion proved no different. A turnover from Connor Brickley handed the puck to Leipsic, who took off on the rush. Leipsic’s initial shot and Brown’s rebound attempt were both turned aside before the puck fell back to Rinat Valiev. The rookie defenseman showed real maturity to hold off on the shot, instead shifting the puck to Leipsic in a better position to his right. Despite falling in the process, the Winnipeg native scored on a one-time effort to put Toronto up 2-1.

The Marlies earned yet another powerplay thanks to excellent work from Nikita Soshnikov, but they were once again toothless with the extra man, barring a pair of shots from Lindberg.

Portland did not have the appearance of a team that would quietly fold up shop despite trailing after 40 minutes. After earning a powerplay early in the third period, they almost levelled the game on Schremp’s pass-come-shot to McFarland alone in front, but Sparks turned aside the redirect. Back at even strength, Derek Arnold brought the very best out of Sparks during a goalmouth scramble.

Toronto finally responded to five minutes of pressure from the visitors by manufacturing a gilt-edge chance of their own. Matt Frattin controlled the play and from behind the net laid a beautiful pass into the wheelhouse of Stuart Percy, who was jumping into the slot, but Percy put it off the mask of Brittain, drawing a stoppage of play.

Connor Brickley, the party at fault for Toronto’s second goal, came as close as any Pirates player to tying the game. His first shot bounced awkwardly off Sparks before the second effort hit the the outside of the post.

The Marlies finally put some distance between themselves and their stubborn opponents on the scoreboard at the midway mark of the period. Brown started the play by withstanding a huge hit inside his own zone to make the pass to Findlay on the left boards. Wasting no time, Findlay chipped the puck by two opponents, sending Leipsic in alone on net. It was a highlight finish from Leipsic, who faked at least three times before scoring with a deft backhand shot.

With six minutes remaining, Brett Findlay’s beautiful curl and drag move enabled him to evade two Portland players but Brittain came out to smother his goal-bound attempt.

The confidence was now flowing through the Marlies, with Kasperi Kapanen turning provider for Campbell in the slot once more, but Brittain kept his team in the game with a fine stop.

Portland should have made it a close game with a shade under four minutes to play, but Grimaldi contrived to whiff on a second opportunity after Olsen’s shot provided a huge rebound.

The road team’s last hurrah came via a delay of game penalty taken by the Marlies’ David Kolomatis.

Pulling Brittain, the Pirates went with six attackers and would have pulled within a goal but for more brilliance from Sparks. Corbyn Knight’s perfect cross-ice feed found Grimaldi waiting in the left circle, but Sparks anticipated the play and got himself across the net in time to deny a powerful one-timer.

The win marks the third win of the season for Garret Sparks at the ACC but just the first of the year for the Toronto Marlies.

Post Game Notes

– With a 37-save performance, Garret Sparks was back to his best after some iffy performances of late. He’s only twice made more saves in a victory this season — 39 and 38 respectively against the Grand Rapids Griffins.

– After 37 games, Brendan Leipsic had eight goals to his name. A pair in this game took his total to 16 in 49 games this season. He’s currently riding a four-game point streak.

Frederik Gauthier is never going to put up those type of points, but does a lot of the unglamorous work for his teammates that often goes unnoticed. Nikita Soshnikov has flourished alongside him, as has new recruit Tobias Lindberg. A fourth goal for Gauthier and his 14th point of the season.

– A welcome return to action for Sam Carrick. Although he wasn’t up to game pace, he didn’t let his team down and played a part on the penalty kill.

– It’s all too easy to say that Brett Findlay is only flourishing because he’s playing between Leipsic and Brown. He’s as key a cog on this line as the other two, as his deft pass for the third goal emphasized. That’s three goals and an assist for Findlay in his last three games.

Game Highlights

Sheldon Keefe Post Game

Marlies Player Stats — Toronto 3 vs. Portland 1

Campbell, AndrewD01210
Brennan, T.J.D00120
Morin, JeremyLW00010
Percy, StuartD00-130
Hyman, ZachRW00-120
Carrick, SamC00010
Leipsic, BrendanLW20242
Lindberg, TobiasRW01140
Gauthier, FrederikC10120
Kolomatis, DavidD00-112
Brown, ConnorRW01230
Findlay, BrettLW01220
Frattin, MattRW00010
Holl, JustinD00100
Kapanen, KasperiRW00-112
Valiev, RinatD01200
Nylander, WilliamC00-100
Soshnikov, NikitaLW00150