Captain Ben Smith, no stranger to a clutch performance or goal this season, led his team to a 4-3 victory over the Providence Bruins with a late winner at the Ricoh Coliseum on Saturday.
Toronto should have swept past Providence in this game — outshooting them 38-26 and carrying the lead for much of the game — but a mixture of dubious officiating and costly mistakes by the Marlies allowed the visitors to stick around and almost steal the two points.
The opening period began in the worst possible way for the Marlies as a pair of consecutive penalties put them down by two men for 60 seconds. With Colin Greening and Kyle Baun in the box, Toronto’s excellent penalty kill did its job without two of the shorthanded units’ main stalwarts.
Baun then thought he had opened the scoring at the seven-minute mark but it wasn’t to be thanks to a debatable decision from the officials. A shot from Timothy Liljegren appeared to deflect in off Baun, who had some manner of contact with Bruins netminder Zane McIntyre but appeared to be helped in. Goaltender interference is not reviewable in the AHL, and after the referees conferred, the goal was waived off.
Toronto channelled their frustrations in a positive direction, opening the scoring less than a minute later when a bad angle shot from the left boards from Greening somehow snuck through McIntyre.
Andreas Johnsson should have immediately doubled the Toronto lead following a Bruins turnover, but he missed the target. The Marlies were then thankful to Calvin Pickard at the other end for stonewalling Adam Payerl after a stay pass presented the Bruins with a prime chance to level the score.
The first power play for the Marlies led to some frustration for Trevor Moore, who couldn’t believe he didn’t bury after a sprawling goal-line save from the Providence goaltender.
The ring of the goal post ensured the Marlies held a 1-0 lead through 20 minutes as Connor Clifton’s effort late in the period clipped the iron and stayed out.
Just four minutes into the middle frame, after good work from Calle Rosen to keep the puck inside the zone at the blue line, the defenseman’s lofted shot toward the net was knocked down by Mason Marchment, who outmuscled his opponent for the loose puck before firing home over the shoulder of McIntyre.
Two almost became three for the Marlies after Greening’s strong drive to the net created an opportunity for Baun, but the newcomer’s effort hit the post.
The Marlies were clearly on top in this game but kept giving Providence looks due to some sloppy passes and cheap turnovers. Pickard denied Kris Porter was denied on a breakaway, Johnsson couldn’t bury his second chance of the game, the Bruins drew within one shortly thereafter.
After a defensive breakdown allowed a straightforward pass from Anton Blidh to bypass three Marlies players, Colby Cave gave Pickard no chance with a tremendous finish.
Just 43 seconds later, the game was tied as Pickard allowed a shot from Cave to sneak between his pad and glove — a goal Pickard would want back.
A power play to end the period was the perfect opportunity for Toronto to respond and they did just that, shortly after Pickard redeemed himself with a wonderful save to turn aside Cave shorthanded.
Smith prevailed in a battle on the left boards before slipping a pass to Chris Muller, who had a man draped all over him but still managed to send a cross-ice feed through the slot. As he often is, Johnsson was johnny on the spot to finish off a one-timer and restore the Marlies lead through 40 minutes.
Toronto set about doubling their lead to begin the third period, but couldn’t cash in despite ample offensive zone pressure.
Instead, another avoidable mistake allowed Providence back into the game. Smith was pressing deep in the Providence zone with the Marlies down a man and kept three Bruins occupied until a pass from below the goal line eluded Justin Holl and Martin Marincin. Kenny Agostino walked in alone and rarely does the 2016-17 scoring champion miss chances like that one-on-one.
The Bruins were now threatening to take the lead for the first time in the game, but Pickard denied Porter on two occasions to keep the stumbling Marlies at level pegging.
As the game entered the final five minutes of regulation, Toronto finally began to reassert the kind of dominance they manufactured earlier in the contest. Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco and Marchment combined, but the former was robbed of a sure goal by an amazing diving save from McIntyre.
After Ryan Fitzgerald wasn’t able to beat Pickard on a subsequent rush, the Bruins were then incensed at the slashing penalty assessed that led to the game-winner with under a minute left in the game.
Up stepped Captain Clutch, as Ben Smith took a pass down low to the left of the goal. Smith’s intended feed for Johnsson, who was clambering for the pass at the back door, was intercepted by the toe of Tommy Cross’ stick and slipped into the tiny gap between the post and the pad of McIntyre.
Toronto held on for the final minute to break a five-game losing streak (0-4-1) on home ice and clinched a playoff berth in the process thanks to Laval’s regulation loss on Saturday evening. The Marlies are the first team in the AHL to punch their ticket to the 2018 post-season.
Post Game Notes
– Ben Smith set a new single-season record for game-winning goals for the Toronto Marlies with his eighth of the campaign. That also leads the entire AHL. The assist meant he reached 48 points for the year, a new career single-season high for him in the AHL.
“As the season has worn on, he’s just taken on more and more responsibility for us and continues to come through,” said Sheldon Keefe.
– Two assists for Chris Mueller takes his seasons tally to 40 points. The veteran forward has recorded at least a point in five of his last six games.
– Calle Rosen registered his first multi-point haul with a pair of assists. That gives Rosen 16 helpers to go along with the lone goal this season in 49 games.
– Andreas Johnsson led all skaters with seven shots on goal. His goal was his 25th of the year, and he continues to produce at a point-per-game pace through 53 games.
– It was somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde performance from Calvin Pickard, but he still produced saves at critical moments in the game despite the one bad goal. His record now sits at 18-8-0 this season.
– Colin Greening notched his 14th goal of the season – just one shy of his single-season AHL career high. That was also his 25th point, surpassing last year’s production achieved in 69 games.
– Sheldon Keefe provided an update on the status of Miro Aaltonen after the game: “He’s getting close. He’s been skating every day and he’s just kind of working his way back through the protocol. We’re expecting him here soon — probably not next game, I wouldn’t say, but he’s skating every day and we’d call him day-to-day at this point.”
– Saturday’s lines:
Johnsson – Mueller – Smith
Moore – Gauthier – Baun
Timashov – Greening – Clune
Marchment – Brooks – Bracco
Marcincin – Holl
Borgman – LoVerde
Rosen – Liljegren