The half-century mark has been reached.
The historic season continues as the Marlies‘ notched their 50th win with six games still to play in the 2015-16 regular season.
Standing in the way were the Grand Rapids Griffins, who have been a fierce rivals in recent seasons, with a history of strongly-fought playoff series and line brawls during regular season games.
Despite the former divisional opponents now being separated into different conferences, the animosity has been evident in three previous games this season (all of which the Marlies won), and this encounter was no exception. It took all of 100 seconds for the physicality to ramp up with Xavier Ouellet laying the boom on Connor Brown, though the Marlies forward bounced right back up.
The first save and hold of the game from Antoine Bibeau brought a scrum. It was no surprise to see Tyler Bertuzzi involved, with Connor Carrick squaring up to the Griffins forward.
Toronto drew the first power play of the game just two minutes in, but they forced Jared Correau into just a single save as the Griffins penalty kill did a fine job not allowing the home team to set up.
It was a case of the Marlies keeping things simple in the early going, trying to find lanes to shoot and looking for second and third opportunities. Correau did well to hang onto a sharp shot from Leivo while Clune’s bad angle drive brought a rebound that only just evaded Colin Smith driving hard to the crease.
Sheer hard work and graft led to the opening goal for Toronto. Zach Hyman twisted and turned to keep possession along the boards before Smith fired on net after creating some space. On hand was Hyman, who had driven to net, to bang home the rebound at the third attempt.
Louis-Marc Aubry found himself at the centre of attention as Grand Rapids went searching for a tying goal. After his wrist shot was denied by Bibeau, Aubry went after the puck in the corner and took down young defenseman Ty Stanton. Appearing from almost nowhere was Rich Clune, his gloves off in an instant as he jumped the wrong Griffins player, with all hell breaking loose.
The fallout was a four-minute powerplay for the Griffins. Zach Hyman, the league’s leading short-handed goal scorer before his call-up, had a chance to grab his fifth 4v5 goal of the season. Breaking away on a rush, he threaded the needle with a pass to Ben Smith instead, but the chance was cut out by a trailing defensemen.
Martin Frk and Connor Carrick were the next to head to the box as the three officials had their hands full at this stage. Toronto killed the full four minutes of the penalty thanks to some fine saves from Bibeau.
Back at even strength, a turnover in front provided the easiest of opportunities for Dan Cleary and he converted to tie the game.
As they did Friday night, Toronto responded well after conceding a goal, applying pressure immediately. David Kolomatis’ effort produced a rebound that fell nicely for Connor Brown. The right winger fed Mark Arcobello, who had Correau beaten but Aubry stuck out a leg to deflect the puck high — a play that sums up Arcobello’s lack of puck luck at the moment.
Josh Leivo and Connor Brown were the next to come close while Rinat Valiev made a tremendous diving play to deny Tomas Nosek on an odd-man rush.
A horrible-looking spear by Mark Zengerle on Arcobello left the Marlies forward in considerable discomfort towards the end of the period. A cheap shot of the worst kind away from the play, the officials rightly handed Zengerle a major and a match misconduct penalties.
Hyman, Frattin and Leivo came close in the final seconds of the period, but the game remained tied after 20 minutes of play.
It took over two and a half minutes for the Marlies to set up in Griffins zone in the second period, but they made the possession count. A beautiful tic-tac-toe play resulted in Brown firing home after assistance from Leivo and Hyman.
Three minutes after restoring a deserved lead, Toronto gifted Grand Rapids a second tying goal. A turnover on the right boards allowed Eric Tangradi to pick out Andy Miele in front.
Miele showed excellent patience from the slot to outwait Bibeau before slotting the puck top shelf.
Toronto were lucky to escape just two minutes later after yet another piece of sloppy play. Ty Stanton was guilty of a rookie mistake, wasting three opportunities to play the puck away from danger, before he was pounced on by two opponents. Bibeau came to his aid with a fine save, clinging on as Bertuzzi sniffed around for a second chance.
That proved a big stop from the Marlie goaltender as Toronto once more took the lead shortly thereafter. Hyman’s hard work kept the puck alive at the blue line, allowing Shane Conacher to carry possession toward the net. Conacher played pitch and catch with Ben Smith before driving across Correau and chipping home with a sweet backhand finish — coolness personified as the rookie tallied his first professional goal.
Not to be outdone was Tony Cameranesi.
Nine seconds after the restart, Cameranesi received a banked pass off the right boards from Taylor Doherty. Driving to the net with a Griffins player right on him, Cameranesi outfought his opponent and fired his shot by Correau despite losing his balance — a special moment for the debutant and the Marlie bench erupted.
In what was a more controlled and quiet period as far as the officials were concerned, the only penalty was called with 2:30 to play, with Josh Leivo the offender. Toronto’s penalty kill was again excellent, denying the Griffins any efforts of note and preserving the 4-2 lead headed into second intermission.
With the voice of head coach Todd Nelson ringing in their ears, the Griffins came out firing early in the third and halved the deficit inside 32 seconds. Again it was a bit of a gift as Connor Carrick failed to make a play and made himself a target on the boards. Tangradi swiftly moved the puck out front to Miele, who made it 4-3.
The Griffins were on the powerplay just 40 seconds later and could easily have tied things up. Miele’s chance for the hat trick was met by Bibeau, who stood tall on a top shelf effort. A lot of the Griffins best work went through Tangradi, and he tuned provider again — this time for Mitch Callahan — but once more Bibeau came to the rescue.
As the penalty was about to expire, Kyle Criscuolo showed a quick turn of speed through the neutral zone and entered the Marlies end. Rounding the entire defense, Bibeau made the initial stop on his first shot and was then grateful for Toronto’s defense getting behind him to ensure the puck didn’t cross the line.
The Marlies’ powerplay may have underachieved for much of the season, but it’s begun to click recently and struck for the second time of the evening at the seven-minute mark. A heads-up play from Brendan Leipsic found Ben Smith in tight, whose effort struck the post. A looping rebound made its way to Colin Smith, who couldn’t quite force the issue before Ben Smith followed up his initial shot to finish off his third goal in two games.
The visitors’ last real opportunity to get anything from this encounter came at the midway mark of the period. Bibeau was forced to come way out of his net to play the puck to deny a breakaway before his clearance fell straight to a Griffins forward. Enter David Kolomatis: Channelling his inner Andrew Campbell — Kolomatis’ words, not mine — the defenseman pulled off an impressive shot block to the huge delight of his teammates and the 7000+ inside Ricoh Coliseum.
That seemed to take the wind out of the visitors sails somewhat before the game was done and dusted as a contest with a little over six minutes to play. Another fantastic piece of swift puck movement from the Marlies saw Colin Smith and Leipsic combine to tee up Sam Carrick for a one-time blast past Correau.
Bibeau was only required to make a few routine saves to clinch a momentous 50th win of the season for the Marlies.
Post Games Notes
– The Toronto Marlies tied their franchise high for wins in a season with 50, last accomplished in the 2007-08 season (80 games).
– Toronto won the special teams battle, going two for four while killing all four opportunities for Grand Rapids.
– Antoine Bibeau recorded his 25th win of the season and his 40th as a member of the Toronto Marlies.
– Tony Cameranesi’s first professional goal also turned out to be the game winner.
– Shane Conacher registered his first point as a professional as well as his first goal.
– Sam Carrick’s top offensive form continues, netting his 15th of the season; a new AHL career high for him.
– Zach Hyman and Ben Smith both notched a goal and two assists, while Colin Smith recorded three helpers. Colin Smith is now up to 19 points in 17 games since the trade to Toronto.
– Not his most effective game, but Brendan Leipsic registered two assists, taking his points tally to 52 in 61 games.
Marlies Player Stats — Toronto 6 vs. Griffins 3