Wins at this stage of the season mean nothing for the Toronto Marlies.
That was made obvious before the game, with Andrew Campbell collecting the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy before the Saturday meeting with the Rochester Americans.
A lineup shorn of Zach Hyman, Josh Leivo and William Nylander presented opportunities for others on the roster to stake a claim at playing in game one of the Calder Cup next weekend.
It was a little disappointing the players that did appear didn’t play to a level expected against a Rochester team that had lost eight of his last ten and had been blown out in Albany the night before.
It began well, as Toronto once again struck with an early goal that has been their trademark of late. Matt Frattin’s drop pass found Mark Arcobello, who located Connor Brown at the back door. Brown’s initial effort was denied by Nathan Lieuwen, but Frattin had driven to the net and was in the right position to finish off the rebound at the three-minute mark.
It would have been easy for the Amerks to drop their heads against a team that’s had their number all year, but they bounced back with a good spell of pressure. Three shots on net forced Bibeau into action while a couple of other attempts were tipped just wide.
Rochester almost tied the game up with eight minutes played after a turnover at Toronto’s blue line. A shot was redirected in front by Evan Rodrigues, with Bibeau reacting exceptionally well to keep the puck out of his net.
Only two lines really shone for the Marlies in this game, one of which was the Frattin, Arcobello and Brown unit. They combined at the midway mark, with Brown’s cross-ice feed picking out T.J Brennan as the trailing man, but Brennan’s effort from a bad angle narrowly missed.
Toronto killed the first penalty of the game, but it wasn’t pretty as they failed to clear the zone with alarming regularity, allowing Rochester to sustain pressure and fire from all angles, looking for traffic and redirections in front as they came close once again to tying the game.
Kasperi Kapanen should have done better than to fire wide from the slot with a little under seven minutes remaining before Colin Smith couldn’t jam home the resulting rebound off the back boards.
Toronto’s first powerplay of the game was disappointing, bar one effort from Brown which drew a fine left toe save from Lieuwen.
Rochester’s goaltender was on his game and produced two fine saves, first on Nikita Soshnikov and then Ben Smith, to keep his team within one as the first period ended.
The visitors were in control during the middle frame, out-shooting Toronto 2:1, but Rochester still somehow found themselves trailing after 40 minutes.
80 seconds in, an ill-advised pinch left Toronto short as the Amerks broke up ice with purpose. A 3-on-2 break ended with Nick Baptists finding the trailing Eric Cornel, but Bibeau stood tall and held on to the snapshot.
The Marlies‘ fourth line was always a threat and returned fire with a dominating shift, with Soshnikov coming close to doubling the lead.
A turnover from Kapanen almost gifted a goal to the Amerks, although he wasn’t alone in committing errors in his own end as Bibeau came to the rescue once more.
A tying goal felt inevitable and did arrive with eight minutes on the clock. A quick transition from the their own end resulted in Rochester’s Justin Bailey teeing up Brendan Guhle for his professional goal.
Rochester looked certain to score a go-ahead goal if not for Bibeau. A 3-on-1 break for the Amerks resulted in Bibeau blanking Cole Schneider, before the Toronto goaltender made an even better save two minutes later. Rodrigues, a constant threat in this game, received a perfect pass in front but was left frustrated as Bibeau denied him with successive saves.
It proved a crucial double stop as Toronto put themselves back in front with a powerplay marker shortly thereafter. T.J Brennan’s measured shot through traffic found its way past Lieuwen — a fitting way for Brennan to celebrate after collecting the Eddie Shore award prior to the game.
With Leipsic sent to the box for unsportsmanlike conduct on the faceoff following the goal, Rochester were granted a golden chance to tie the game back up. Enter Antoine Bibeau again, first robbing Schneider on a breakaway before producing a fine save to turn aside Tim Schaller in tight.
The final frame lacked tempo in the opening seven minutes, with Rochester looking the better team as they fired eight shots to Toronto’s single effort. Once the Marlies started to find their legs, Sam Carrick and Ben Smith tested Lieuwen as Toronto generated four shots without response and finally spent some time in the offensive zone.
Rochester thought they had tied the game up for the second time with just over eight minutes remaining. Giorgio Estephan’s blast appeared to hit the back of the net and bounce out with a shot headed for the top corner. Upon review, the goal was waived off.
That was as close as the plucky Amerks came to taking anything from this game. The put-away goal came after Frederik Gauthier rang his shot off the post from the slot, with the puck flying out to Andrew Campbell at the point. Toronto’s captain shifted the puck to his right, where Rinat Valiev was standing not too far from the boards. The rookie’s wicked one-time shot went post and in to seal a 3-1 win for the Marlies.
Post Game Notes
– With the Marlies outshot 34-24, Antoine Bibeau came up with 33 saves for his 28th win of the season. He’s 7-1-0-0 through his last eight games, with a .937 save percentage and two shutouts over that span. He’s hitting his best form at exactly the right time of year.
– Sheldon Keefe on Bibeau: “[In the past] I’ve described his season as inconsistent; to me, I don’t know how long the sample has been, but the inconsistency is gone. He’s been as solid for as long as I can remember here now. He looks really confident. He’s been terrific.”
– Garret Sparks will play in the final game of the season Sunday afternoon in what will be his first AHL start since the James Reimer trade.
– Keefe clearly wasn’t in love with the performance on Saturday, but he mentioned a couple of times after the game that this is a tough final group of games to get through with the minds of his team looking ahead to the playoffs.
– Viktor Loov saw his first game action in almost a month and a half after getting injured in early March.
– Kasperi Kapanen‘s current five-game pointless streak is his longest of the season.
– T.J Brennan’s goal was his 25th of the season, tying a career high set in 2013-14.
– A pair of assists for Connor Brown takes his points tally to 29 in 34 games.
– Rinat Valiev’s goal was his fourth of the year and his first in 2016.