After falling behind by two early, the Toronto Marlies were staring down the barrel of a fourth consecutive defeat for the majority of this Sunday matinee contest versus Hartford.

Yet to win when trailing after 40 minutes entering the game, some of the Marlies unsung veterans helped get their team back on track to ensure Toronto didn’t leave the weekend three-in-three empty handed.

First Period

Toronto began positively as Tobias Lindberg drew a penalty 67 seconds in, but it proved a false dawn for the Marlies. Justin Fontaine might have scored shorthanded if not for an excellent backcheck from Kasperi Kapanen, and the powerplay was over before it really started due to a weak interference call on Andreas Johnsson.

On the ensuing faceoff at 4-on-4, John Gilmour was allowed to dance around two Marlies players in the slot before beating Garret Sparks. Making his second consecutive start, Sparks struggled in this game and really should have done better, having gotten a significant piece of the shot.

It got worse for the Marlies shortly after as Hartford increased their advantage with Johnsson still in the box. Rinat Valiev failed to control a puck at the offensive blue line when he might have been better suited backing off and playing it safe, allowing Niklas Jensen to race away with only a backtracking Justin Holl in pursuit. The Wolf Pack forward cut across Holl and fired an early low shot that appeared to handcuff Sparks.

Mason Marchment was the unfortunate recipient of a hooking penalty shortly afterwards — another weak call — but this time Toronto killed the penalty with relative ease. On a powerplay of their own, the Marlies came close through Johnsson and Leipsic but were unable to force the puck through Magnus Helberg.

There was little in the way of noteworthy play from either team at even strength until the final four minutes of the opening period. Chris Summers almost scored on a breakaway on Saturday and nearly made up for it after taking a feed through the middle of the ice. Unchallenged as he broke into the slot, his unconventional backhand attempt whistled wide of the post.

Toronto’s best chance to claw their way into the game came through an impressive drive to the net by Mason Marchment. The rookie dished off to Colin Smith, but Helberg came up with the pad save.

Before the period was through, a fight broke out between Andrew Nielsen and Chris Brown after a melee in front of Toronto’s goal. In the first professional fight of Nielsen’s career, the rookie handled himself well all things considered.

The Marlies comeback got its start on a late penalty kill that saw Toronto draw a powerplay of their own to begin the middle frame.

Second Period

Just 38 seconds in, Kasperi Kapanen rifled a shot from the right faceoff dot that flashed across Helberg before he could react. Kapanen’s 11th of the season moves him into a tie for the league lead in goals.

Rich Clune is far from the most talented hockey player on the Marlie roster, but he’s undoubtedly the heartbeat of the team and he drags others into the fight when he’s on his game. Early in the period, the Marlies came close to scoring an ugly goal after a fantastic forecheck from Clune alongside linemates Marc-Andre Cliché and Kerby Rychel.

With Toronto starting to take a hold of the game, Colin Greening really should have scored when presented with a great look from the high slot.

Brendan Leipsic was playing in an unfamiliar position at centre ice but he was still pulling the strings when the puck was on his stick. He drew a tripping call and watched as his teammates did everything but score on the ensuing powerplay. A booming shot from Nielsen forced a rebound and an intense scramble in front of Helberg, with Kapanen unable to finish it off.

Leipsic drew a second straight tripping penalty eight minutes into the period but Toronto failed to register a shot on goal during the 48-second two-man advantage. At 5-on-4, the tying goal came thanks to a more simplistic approach on the powerplay, as a shot from Andrew Nielsen was well tipped past Helberg by Kerby Rychel in front.

With the game tied just before the midway point and the momentum in their favour, Toronto looked the likelier team to take the lead. That’s not how it played out as a let off from the Marlies allowed the Wolf Pack to restore a one-goal advantage against the run of play.

The Marlies were caught flatfooted and Chris Brown skated unimpeded from his own zone to Toronto’s left circle. With not much available in the way of support, Brown released a backhand effort from the faceoff dot that struck iron and bounced through the legs of Sparks, beating him short side. The goaltender smashed his stick on the ice in frustration, fully aware it was another goal he needed to have.

The opportunities still presented themselves for the home team to tie the game before the intermission buzzer. Milan Michalek and Greening both wasted promising openings while a sixth powerplay for the Marlies failed to click.

With 2:30 remaining, a rush down the right wing from Rychel put Hartford on their heels before Rychel found Clune in front. Pulling the puck from left to right, Clune had Helberg down and out but lost control of the puck at the final second.

Late in the period, a wicked shot from Johnsson resulted in a rebound that found the stick of Smith in the slot, but Helberg produced a fantastic save to preserve the Wolf Pack’s 3-2 advantage heading into the third.

Third Period

An early goal in the final frame was the perfect tonic for Toronto team fully aware of their record when trailing after two periods.

There’s little doubt that Michalek is a talented offensive player, but we’ve yet to see anything near the quality of play expected from him in his time with the Marlies. With that said, he came through with his second of the season to tie the game at threes two and a half minutes into the final period. From the left of the net, his wonderful saucer pass over a sliding defenseman found Colin Smith in front. In turned into a bit of a broken play, but Michalek followed up by jamming the loose puck into the net for his second goal of the season.

Hartford almost immediately bounced back to retake the lead thanks in part to more sketchy goaltending from Sparks. A bad angle shot from the left wing hit the top of the crossbar with Toronto’s goaltender scrambling, somehow having taken himself out of position on an innocent-looking play.

Having survived the close call, the Marlies put their foot on the gas and went searching for a go-ahead marker. Yet to score this season after setting a career high with nine in 66 last season, Andrew Campbell came close to breaking his duck before Helberg turned aside Greening and Marchment.

After Johnsson drew a penalty five minutes into the period, Marchment had Helberg beaten during the delayed portion of the powerplay but hit the post.

Back at even strength, some simple but effective hockey saw Toronto net the decisive seventh goal of the game. Cliché won the faceoff at the right circle, shifting the puck back to Campbell at the blue line. Campbell handed possession to Rychel at the half-wall, where the California native wasted little time throwing the puck on goal. Clune had positioned himself as the screen in front and jumped on the rebound, sliding the puck past a sprawling Helberg.

The celebration that followed was reminiscent of Clune’s reaction after his game seven winner versus Albany in the playoffs last Spring, and you couldn’t fault him for his exuberance. He’s been a healthy scratch many times this season — which has undoubtedly been tough on him — and he’s bounced back with aplomb when given an opportunity.

The example of Clune was certainly not lost on Smith or Marchment. They battled like men possessed behind Hartford’s net to ensure Toronto retained control of the puck, enabling Smith to find Wrenn pinching into the play. After Wrenn’s shot produced a rebound, Marchment’s desire in front of goal saw him do everything but solve Helberg.

Toronto needed an insurance marker and almost found one courtesy of Kapanen. A recipient of an outlet pass, the speedy Finnish winger created separation with a few powerful strides but lost the handle on the breakaway at the last moment with Helberg down.

To Hartford’s credit, they refused to lie down despite coughing up two leads, producing a credible surge in the final five minutes. Firing on sight and crashing Sparks wasn’t the worst strategy, and it nearly paid dividends on a couple of occasions.

Toronto dug deep as the visitors threw on the extra attacker before the Wolf Pack’s chances took a blow with a late penalty call. A powerplay empty netter from Leipsic sealed the deal after a smart play from Kapanen on the left wall in the defensive zone.

It was telling that there was no real celebration from Leipsic or his teammates after the insurance goal. An expression of sheer relief was etched on the faces of Toronto players after a tough week at the office.

Post Game Notes

– No points on the board for Marc-Andre Cliché or Mason Marchment yet, but their play warrants mention. Like Clune, Cliché’s opportunities have been limited but he played a solid game, producing the veteran-like performance this Marlies team is in dire need of right now. Marchment dressed for just the second time this season and benefited greatly from playing alongside Colin Smith and Andreas Johnsson. He opened time and space for his linemates with his big frame and was unlucky not to open his scoring account.

– Rich Clune’s goal was his first of the season and he’s made it next to impossible for Sheldon Keefe to scratch him now after two good performances this weekend.

– A two-point game ensures Brendan Leipsic stays atop the AHL scoring charts, although he’s now tied with Chicago’s Brad Hunt.

– Kasperi Kapanen has moved into seventh in AHL scoring thanks to a three-point outing on Sunday. His eleventh tally of the season ties him for the lead in goals.

– Under the radar somewhat, Kerby Rychel had himself a three-point game on Sunday. He benefited greatly from playing alongside Cliché and Clune, a line which could stay together on the upcoming road trip.

– Byron Froese was an injury scratch, as were Frederik Gauthier and Travis Dermott. Viktor Loov was also scratched, with Ty Stanton replacing him in the line-up. It wasn’t reported either way, but Loov may well have been a healthy scratch given he has struggled at times this season.

– An assist for Andrew Nielsen was his eleventh powerplay point of the season. He’s tied for seventh in rookie scoring with 15 points.

– Garret Sparks struggled after a decent comeback performance on Saturday. He’ll need to work hard in practice to receive any starts on the upcoming four-game road trip, with Karri Ramo arriving on a tryout agreement, Jhonas Enroth sent down, and Jeff Glass hungry for another opportunity.

Game Highlights

Sheldon Keefe Post Game

Marlies 5 vs. Wolf Pack 3 – Game Sheet

Campbell, AndrewD01010
Valiev, RinatD0002-1
Holl, JustinD0000-1
Nielsen, AndrewD01540
Wrenn, WilliamD00021
Smith, ColinC01030
Johnsson, AndreasLW00230
Clune, RichardLW10021
Michalek, MilanLW10041
Leipsic, BrendanLW1102-1
Marchment, MasonLW00210
Cliche, Marc-AndreC00021
Kapanen, KasperiRW1201-1
Stanton, TyD00001
Rychel, KerbyLW12071
Lindberg, TobiasLW0000-1
Greening, ColinC00220
Timashov, DmytroLW01010