The Toronto Marlies are the best team in the American Hockey League.

It’s a sentence that has been spoken and written many times in the past weeks and months, but it is now officially a factually true statement. An overtime victory over the Lake Erie Monsters secured the North Division title, the Eastern Conference award, as well as the MacGregor Kilpatrick Trophy for best record in AHL.

They didn’t always play like the best team in this eventful contest, but as the Marlies have done on many occasions this season — as all great teams do — they found a way to win.

The team exchanged a pair of early goals with both team’s defences at fault. Just 86 seconds in, a pair of Lake Erie forwards outworked three Marlies in the corner. Alex Broadhurst was allowed to work out in front of the net all alone before sliding the puck past the left pad of Antoine Bibeau.

Eight seconds later, Lake Erie’s coach must have been pulling his hair out as a misplayed pass deep in Monsters’ zone presented Connor Brown with possession at the top of the slot. The puck was on and off Brown’s stick in a blink as he tied it up with a wicked wrist shot.

The Marlies were by far the better team at even strength during the first period, with Lake Erie restricted to opportunities on errors by the home team. The shot clock favoured the Marlies 17-8, with the Monsters fortunate to go into the first intermission tied.

The second period started with a bang just as the opening 20 minutes had. A long outlet pass missed Zach Hyman, but the forward pressured an Erie player into knocking the puck to the left corner of the ice. Rich Clune gathered it up and sent a perfect pass to Ben Smith driving into the zone, and Smith’s one touch finish from the slot gave Forsberg no chance.

Those in attendance in Ricoh were then brought back down to earth in a moment of sheer horror and panic. Lake Erie forward Brett Gallant appeared to collapse on the bench, sparking players of both teams into action to call for emergency medical support. After a long delay, both teams agreed to play on in the circumstances and fortunately it appears Gallant was conscious and responsive on his way to hospital.

Somewhat understandably, the middle frame became fragmented as both teams’ minds seemed to be elsewhere after the incident. It was the Marlies who appeared to be the most affected, so much so that Sheldon Keefe called a timeout to settle his troops.

It had the desired impact as Toronto drew a penalty almost immediately after. The powerplay struggled at times in this game, but simplicity brought the desired result. Colin Smith expertly tipped a shot from Connor Carrick past Forsberg for the 3-1 lead.

Lake Erie came out firing in the third period, tying the game up inside five minutes. Toronto were totally off the boil, but Bibeau certainly wanted the first one back. After making a fine initial save, Bibeau lost sight of the puck while looking to his right. The puck had fallen to Michael Paliotta on the left and he embarrassed Toronto’s netminder by firing it through his legs.

The tying goal was no less dreadful from a Marlies standpoint as a scramble in front after a barrage of pressure saw the puck bounce in off the unfortunate Mark Arcobello, with credit for the goal awarded to Mark Cundari.

One team looked the likelier winner as the final frame wound down, and it wasn’t the Marlies. The shots favoured the visitors 18-6 in the third period as Toronto were thankful to Bibeau for shutting the Monsters down inside the last five minutes. Bibeau was redeeming himself for the second goal while he received little help from those in front of him.

Both sides exchanged rushes inside the final 60 seconds, the second of which resulted in a penalty. Rich Clune, of all people broke, in alone on Forsberg; although his effort was denied, Clune was slashed, sending Toronto to the man advantage to begin overtime.

Early-period goals were the order of the day as Toronto wasted no time scoring the game winner. Brendan Leipsic was calmness personified on the right side, waiting for the opportune moment to slide the puck cross ice to Arcobello waiting on the opposite wing. Arcobello put it short side by Forsberg just 27 seconds into overtime, sending the Marlies faithful at Ricoh Coliseum into raptures.

Post Game Notes

– Tonight’s lines:

Leivo – Arcobello – Brown
Clune – B.Smith – Hyman
Leipsic – C.Smith – Frattin
Kurtz – Cameranesi – Conacher

Valiev – C.Carrick
Percy – Holl
Nielsen – Kolomatis

– As well as all the awards, the Marlies recorded their 51st victory of the season, which is a new franchise high.

– It was the 25th win on home ice with still three games left to play at Ricoh Coliseum.

Colin Smith’s goal was his 20th of the season and also his 20th point in 18 games for the Marlies.

Josh Leivo’s assists, both on the powerplay, extended forward’s points streak to five games.

Ben Smith continued his incredible start with the Marlies. In three games, the right winger has four goals and two assists.

Connor Carrick’s assist was his first point as a Toronto Marlie.

– Sheldon Keefe on the plan for Andrew Nielsen, who made his debut tonight in limited action as the coaching staff eases the 19-year-old through the adjustment: “We’re going to get him in. He’s going to play another two games this weekend here. We’ll see how things progress from there. He’ll get a little bit of action and a little bit more time to get comfortable. We’ll make a plan from there. I don’t expect he’ll play in the playoffs; certainly not at the start. But he’s going to be around for us and be available. He’ll keep working with our development team. I think we’ll make a decision once we get through next week on that.

I thought he looked like a guy playing his first game. He looked a little uncomfortable, a litle hesitant. We’ve been happy with his play in practice and we can see that it’s there. He’s had a good season in the WHL. It’s a big jump coming in here now. I think, as the weekend goes on, we expect him to get better. He’s certainly going to get a whole lot more opportunity to play a lot more than he did tonight as we move on to tomorrow.”

Game Highlights

Sheldon Keefe Post Game

Marlies Player Stats — Toronto 4 vs. Lake Erie 3 (OT)

Carrick, ConnorD01-130
Nielsen, AndrewD00-100
Percy, StuartD00112
Hyman, ZachRW00020
Leivo, JoshLW02-160
Clune, RichardLW01010
Leipsic, BrendanLW01012
Smith, BenRW10020
Conacher, ShaneRW00000
Kolomatis, DavidD00-110
Arcobello, MarkC10-140
Brown, ConnorRW10-110
Smith, ColinC10020
Kurtz, JohnLW00000
Frattin, MattRW00040
Holl, JustinD00120
Cameranesi, TonyF00010
Valiev, RinatD00-110