Faced with their biggest test of the season, the Toronto Marlies produced their best 60-minute performance to date against Charlotte on Saturday.

There were certainly things to nitpick, especially on special teams, but Sheldon Keefe would have been really pleased with the way his team took control after a tight opening period and largely dominated the game at 5-on-5.

First Period

The line of Colin Greening, Frederik Gauthier and Nikita Soshnikov set the tone for the Marlies early, hemming Charlotte inside their own zone to begin the game. The line of Miro Aaltonen, Kasperi Kapanen and Kerby Rychel followed suit, with the latter two coming close to putting the Marlies ahead on the second shift of the game.

A debatable call on Rinat Valiev broke the momentum, but Garret Sparks came up with a pair of solid saves and Toronto survived the penalty kill despite being toyed with at times by Charlotte’s power play.

Toronto’s first try with the man advantage didn’t produce a goal but wasn’t without its chances as Dmytro Timashov and Soshnikov shot on sight and created second-chance opportunities.

A second power play for the Checkers pressed the home team, but Sparks hung tough and his teammates battled hard in the slot to clear rebounds and the zone at every chance. The majority of Sparks’ 11 first-period saves came on the PK.

Second Period

The Marlies came out the gates fast to begin the second period, forcing Checkers goaltender Jeremy Smith into action to deny Rychel and Kapanen inside the first minute.

Toronto’s first real structural breakdown of the game occurred 90 seconds in, as Warren Foegele was allowed to escape in on goal alone. Sparks was able to stick out his right pad to deny the backhand attempt, but the back-checking Justin Holl hooked the Checkers forward out of desperation and Charlotte was awarded a penalty shot.

Foegele, who has been on fire in front of goal this season, had Sparks moving side to side and attempted to go five-hole, but the Toronto goaltender closed the wickets in time to keep the game scoreless.

A pair of second-period power plays for Toronto weren’t taken advantage of before the deadlock was finally broken in the 12th minute of the middle frame. After the Marlies forced a neutral zone turnover, Ben Smith dished off to Holl, who gained the zone and found Mason Marchment to his left in the slot. Marchment sniped home top shelf into the far corner with a terrific shot from the right face-off dot.

The Checkers were now firmly on the backfoot as Toronto pushed on looking to double their advantage. Smith had to pull off saves on Timothy Liljegren and Rychel twice after excellent set-up play from Kapanen.

A subsequent Marlies power play wasn’t their best effort before a turnover gifted Aaltonen a great chance from the slot, but Smith was on hand to bail his team out once again.

A deserved second goal arrived with 31 seconds left in the middle frame. As Marchment, Brooks, Smith, Marincin and Liljegren gave the Checkers the run-around in their own zone, Marchment sent the puck back toward Marincin above the left circle. After his initial shot was blocked, Marincin regained possession and sent a cross-ice feed to Liljegren above the opposite circle. Meanwhile, Marchment found some space in the slot and tapped home the rookie defenseman’s inch-perfect pass on a backdoor play.

Third Period

Charlotte’s last chance at getting themselves back in the game arrived four minutes into the third period. A turnover from Marincin presented Andrew Poturalski with a gilt-edged chance in the slot, but Sparks, who had been a passenger for much of the previous 20 minutes, came up with an important and timely save.

Charlotte took a penalty on the same play and Toronto put the game out of reach on the subsequent power play. Finally able to set up inside the Checkers zone, the Marlies moved the puck with intent; a tic-tac-toe play began with Vincent LoVerde at the left point, moved to Soshnikov in the right circle, and then to Timashov at the left face-off dot. Yet to find the net this season, the second-year winger put the puck upstairs past Smith to give the Marlies a 3-0 lead.

Toronto struck a fourth time less than 60 seconds later to put the two points firmly in the bag seven minutes into the third period. Adam Brooks chased down Josh Wesley behind the net and intercepted a pass before sending the puck in front to Ben Smith, whose tenacious effort kept the puck alive in the slot area before Greening snuck a backhand shot past the overworked Charlotte netminder.

There was only one thing left to play for with the game at 4-0. Sparks knows he’s in a battle with the arrival of Calvin Pickard, and a shutout is the perfect message to send to management about his intention to keep hold of the number-one job.

Toronto kept Charlotte to the perimeter for the most part — allowing just six shots on net in the third period — and Sparks turned aside the last of those with seven seconds remaining to secure the Marlies’ first shutout of the season.

Post Game Notes

– Toronto remains unbeaten on home ice with a 3-0-0 record.

– Toronto outshot Charlotte 18-7 in the second period and 36-24 overall.

– The shutout for Garret Sparks was the tenth of his AHL career, tying the Marlies’ franchise record set by Antoine Bibeau. He’s 3-1-0 this season with a .933 save percentage. Over to you, Calvin Pickard.

– A pair of goals for Mason Marchment, who is enjoying some offensive success this season with three goals in as many games.

– Two assists for Ben Smith takes his points tally to seven in six games. He was the only skater without a shot on goal, which is a remarkable statistic given his excellent performance in this game.

Timothy Liljegren continues to impress, and seemed to find a good rhythm on a pairing with Martin Marincin. Another beautifully crafted assist extends his point streak to four games. “He’s very skilled, very poised,” said Keefe. “He’s not fazed by what’s happening out here with the pace or the smaller ice, or anything like that. He’s confident. He’s learning how we want him to play. He’s a very confident guy and he’s competitive. He’s just getting better as he’s getting more and more comfortable.”

Colin Greening and Dmytro Timashov recorded their first goals of the season. It was noticeable that Timashov was looking to shoot more in this game, and he didn’t hesitate on his goal as he may have previously.

Justin Holl had one of his best games of the season, looking a real threat in possession and utilizing his speed throughout. The same could be said of Rinat Valiev; perhaps the intense competition for places this season is bringing the best out of both of them.

Kasperi Kapanen failed to record a point, but you can sense his breakthrough is just around the corner.

– The healthy scratches were Jeremy Bracco, Andrew Nielsen, Michael Paliotta, Andreas Johnsson and Rich Clune. When asked why Johnsson wasn’t playing, Keefe would only say, “He isn’t banged up. He sat today but it has nothing to do with performance. We’ll just leave it at that.”

Game Highlights

Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe

Game Sheet: Toronto 4 vs. Charlotte 0

Valiev, RinatD00210
Holl, JustinD01241
LoVerde, VincentD01020
Liljegren, TimothyD01022
Dermott, TravisD00011
Moore, TrevorLW00020
Brooks, AdamC01013
Rychel, KerbyLW00020
Smith, BenRW02003
Mueller, ChrisC00010
Marchment, MasonLW20052
Kapanen, KasperiRW00020
Soshnikov, NikitaRW01010
Gauthier, FrederikC00010
Greening, ColinC10021
Timashov, DmytroLW10030
Aaltonen, MiroC00020
Marincin, MartinD01042