The Toronto Marlies moved within a point of clinching a North Division title with a victory in St. John’s on Friday evening.
The Marlies were well on top in the early stages of a game that held greater importance for the IceCaps, who needed a point to secure a playoff berth.
Toronto’s movement of the puck and cycle game was too much for their hosts to handle, allowing them to race out to a two-goal lead inside seven minutes.
A shot from the right blue line by Steve Oleksy found its way through traffic to open the scoring inside three minutes. Cal O’Reilly should have doubled the lead after picking up a turnover above the hashmarks, but Toronto struck again on the power play shortly after.
Sharp puck movement with the extra man saw Dmytro Timashov pick out Brendan Leipsic, who fired home a one-time shot.
The IceCaps struck back with a power play goal of their own with nine minutes on the clock. Charles Hudon scored on an easy tap-in at the back door after a shot from Joel Hanley was turned aside by Garret Sparks.
Almost immediately after, Max Friberg had an opportunity to tie the game on a breakaway but fired high of the target.
Flailing a little after going up 2-0, Toronto got their act together and almost restored their two-goal lead. Frederik Gauthier was denied by Charles Lindgren after fine setup work from Rich Clune and Kerby Rychel.
The remainder of the opening period was more evenly played, but neither team could find the net again before the buzzer.
The middle frame was a period to forget for Toronto, but they managed to survive with a slender lead intact.
The period started with a third Marlies goal just 23 seconds in after a drive to the net from Gauthier provided an easy second chance for Trevor Moore. Gauthier received no credit on the goal, with the lone assist somehow awarded to Leipsic, but the big centerman’s work set it all up.
If Andreas Johnsson was able to corral a pass on a rush it may have been a 4-1 game, but the IceCaps pushed back hard after dodging the bullet.
Sparks denied Yannick Veilleux after a stretch pass sent the left winger past Toronto’s defense before St. John’s drew within a goal.
The Marlies weren’t happy on two counts: Firstly, the cheapness of the goal, with Hudon picking off a pass and then streaking in alone on goal. Secondly, Andrew Campbell was the last man back on the blue line and was clearly interfered by an IceCaps forward, who was trying to stay onside. Either way, it was a magnificent finish from Hudon, who outwaited Sparks before sliding the puck by him.
The IceCaps were flying at this stage, but there were opportunities for Toronto to establish their advantage. A one-timer from Leipsic on the power play brought an excellent save out of Lindgren, while Justin Holl’s effort on a feed from O’Reilly was blocked in front. O’Reilly then teed up Seth Griffith in tight, but he fired high of the target.
A third Marlies power play led to the game’s next goal but not for the team with the man advantage. Lindgren came up with a huge stop to rob Brett Findlay before the IceCaps tied the game at three while shorthanded.
Stefan Matteau sped down the right wing and attempted a wraparound after circling the net. The puck fell to an unattended Jacob de la Rose, who finished easily for his 14th of the season.
Allowing a shorthanded tally inside the final two minutes of the period might have been a hammer’s blow to Toronto earlier this season, but this is a stronger and more resilient Marlies club.
Toronto struck back within 30 seconds to restore a lead after 40 minutes. Griffith rifled home top shelf from the left circle after a fake shot and perfectly weighted pass from Travis Dermott.
St. John’s push for a point in the third period started with a power play after Andrew Nielsen was sent to the box for interference, which felt like the referees arbitrarily picking one out of the pile.
Sparks came to Toronto’s rescue with a pad save to deny De La Rose. The Marlies goaltender had to stay sharp as Toronto floundered somewhat inside the opening half-a-dozen minutes.
After regaining their composure, the Marlies pushed back. They didn’t create many scoring chances, but they protected the lead by controlling possession. Lindgren kept his team in the hunt with another good save on Findlay before holding onto another Oleksy shot from the point.
St. John’s put only seven shots on net through the final frame but they did create a couple of openings inside the final five minutes. Sparks did just enough to stop Hudon on an odd-man rush for the home team, taking an unnecessary whack from the IceCaps forward in the process.
With 80 seconds remaining, Lindgren was pulled for the extra attacker and the IceCaps raised themselves for one final push. A nifty toe save was the final act of the game for Sparks, who was helped out by a brave shot block in front afterward.
Johnsson looked as if he might score the insurance marker but he was clearly held/ interfered with on the right boards, with no call forthcoming. It mattered little after Rinat Valiev skated the puck through the neutral zone and finished into the vacant net to edge Toronto closer to the North Division title.
– The Marlies still don’t know who they’ll face in the first round of the Calder Cup with one regular season game left to play. The IceCaps could fall out of fourth place should the Utica Comets better St. John’s result on Saturday night. The only certainty is that a point for Toronto would guarantee them home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
– Garret Sparks made 25 saves for his 21st victory of the season. This was the first time he’s allowed more than two goals against since February 15.
– A pair of assists for Brett Findlay takes his points tally to 24 in 33 games.
– Brendan Leipsic passed the 50-point mark with a goal and an assist (the helper may be reassessed by the AHL).
– Travis Dermott broke an eight-game pointless streak with an assist on the game-winner.
– Steve Oleksy is more known for his physical, no-nonsense play, but he’s provided an unexpected offensive boost from the back end. This was his third multi-point effort in 19 games, with nine points overall since the trade to Toronto.
– Seth Griffith netted his 10th of the season and continues to produce at above a point-per-game pace.
– Mike Sislo headed to the dressing room late in the second period with an apparent wrist injury.
Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe
Game Sheet – Toronto 5 vs. St. John’s 3