Back on home ice after a long road-trip, Toronto relied on special teams and the superb play of Garret Sparks to secure a 2-1 victory over divisional rival Syracuse.
The Marlies won their third straight for the third time this year and will strive for a season-high fourth on the bounce in Sunday’s rematch against the Crunch.
The early signs were promising for the Marlies as they burst out of the opening gates and could easily have opened the scoring through Frederik Gauthier 30 seconds in. Making his debut between the pipes for Syracuse, Louis Domingue made a pair of excellent saves before the first real stoppage in the game for a Toronto penalty taken by Travis Dermott.
The Crunch took advantage with the extra man through Adam Erne, who was in the right spot to sweep home a rebound from Ben Thomas’ initial effort, putting the Crunch out ahead three minutes in.
Garret Sparks, who had little chance on the opening goal, bounced back to deny Mathieu Joseph on a breakaway, leading to another early power play for Tampa’s affiliate.
This time, Toronto’s penalty kill stood firm and the Marlies almost scored seconds after Calle Rosen exited the box as Justin Holl and Gauthier nearly combined.
On the first Toronto power play of the game with a little under seven minutes left to play in the opening frame, the Marlies tied the game up through some terrific puck movement. Moments after a heavy shot from Rosen struck the iron, Chris Mueller teed up Andreas Johnsson in the slot and the Swedish winger made no mistake from there.
Carelessness with the puck was repeatedly causing Toronto problems; Syracuse almost benefited from successive Marlie turnovers when Anthony Cirelli broke away all alone, but Sparks turned him aside with the confidence of a goaltender very much in the best form of his professional career.
With former Marlie Carter Verhaeghe in the box for slashing, Toronto struck again on the power play on a one-man effort from Kasperi Kapanen. Picking up possession at his own blue line, Kapanen turned on the afterburners and scorched through the neutral zone and into the Syracuse zone. With Crunch defense backed off the speedy winger, Kapanen picked the top corner past the glove hand of Domingue.
The Marlies started the second period on a power play but weren’t able to make it a perfect three from three with the man advantage. From there, Syracuse dominated proceedings in the middle frame but were unable to find the net despite a 12-7 advantage in shots on goal.
Sparks had to make an excellent left-pad stop to deny Cory Conacher after another Marlie turnover in front of the goaltender, while the Marlies penalty kill was excellent on the two occasions it was called on.
Toronto generated just two chances of note at even strength through the middle frame: Dmytro Timashov stripped a Crunch player in the offensive zone but Domingue got a piece of his glove on the goal-bound effort. Gauthier then appeared to have a wide open net on a rebound from Andrew Nielsen’s shot, but Domingue pulled the rabbit out of the hat with a great desperation save.
The Marlies were a little fortunate to carry the lead through 40 minutes and once more dodged a bullet four minutes into the final frame. Mitchell Stephens’s shot beat Sparks all ends up but struck the post before bouncing to safety. That wasn’t the view of the goal judge, who turned his light on and kept it shining as play continued. A video review confirmed the no-goal call on the ice.
The penalty parade continued unabated, with a power play for the Crunch cut short by the speed and desire of Kapanen in his penalty killing assignment as he pressured Syracuse inside their own zone.
A high-sticking double minor provided Toronto with four minutes to add an insurance marker, but they weren’t able break down a stubborn Syracuse defense. Kerby Rychel had the best opportunity to increase the lead, but with the goaltender at his mercy low in the slot, a Syracuse defender blocked the shot on the goal line.
The Crunch generated two shorthanded chances of their own as Toronto’s frustration of failing to gain the offensive blue line led to some extravagant, dangerous plays.
Sparks kept Syracuse at bay and held down the fort for the remaining seven minutes left in regulation to secure Toronto’s 12th win of the season.
Post Games Notes
– Garret Sparks made 30 saves for his eighth win of the year. He’s yet to lose at home (4-0) and now owns a sparking .947 save percentage. “He’s been the backbone of our team,” Sheldon Keefe said post-game. “Our goaltending — the tandem — has been very solid for us and it’s become something we know we can rely upon.”
“We don’t want to rely upon it as much as we have on some days, but it gives us a chance at success. Keeping pucks out of our net, whether it’s through our goaltending or the defense with the way they’ve played, has been the key to success for us here, especially in the last month or so.”
– Andreas Johnsson scored his seventh of the year and also added an assist. He’s currently riding a three game points streak (2-2-4). “He’s a good player,” said Keefe. “He’s a smart player. That makes him effective even when his legs aren’t going for him. His brain seems to be in it all the time, and that helps him win a lot of loose pucks and be in the right spots and know here to go.”
“And he’s extremely competitive. When you’re just not feeling it with your legs, he’s competitive and that drives him to win pucks back. Despite being a smaller guy, he rarely loses battles, which is good to see.”
– The two points for Kasperi Kapanen included the game winner and — incredibly — his first assist of the season.
– The line of Colin Greening, Fredrik Gauthier and Ben Smith was the Marlies’ most consistent. They weren’t able to break through offensively but created a host of opportunities and caused Syracuse plenty of problems throughout the 60 minutes.
– Travis Dermott took his 12th minor penalty of the season — an area of his game that he’ll need to clean up. He’s been in the box in three of the last five games.
– Rinat Valiev returned to action for the first time in exactly a month.
– Saturday’s lines: