The Toronto Marlies extended their winning streak to five games despite fielding a make-shift lineup on Friday night in Belleville.

With a playoff berth now secure, head coach Sheldon Keefe used this game as an opportunity provide increased ice time and looks higher in the lineup for some of the lesser names and newcomers on the roster.

First Period

Toronto started the game with jump and purpose; six shots in the opening four minutes were followed by the best scoring chance of the game to that point, as Colin Greening’s strong drive to the net was halted by Hogberg.

A brain lapse from Andrew Nielsen presented the puck to Jack Rodewald in the slot, who duly dished off to Filip Chlapik. Fortunately for the Marlies and Nielsen in particular, Calvin Pickard is in impeccable form and turned the backhand effort aside.

The shots kept raining in on net from distance, but despite efforts to create traffic in front by the Marlies, Hogberg was able to locate the puck and wasn’t giving out much in the way of rebound opportunities.

The best chance of the period fell to Adam Brooks, who drifted past two Belleville players on his way into the slot, but Hogberg kept the sheet clean through 20 minutes, even with Toronto finishing the period on the power play.

Second Period

The Marlies were on top again in the middle frame, but an early chance for the returning Miro Aaltonen was gobbled up by Hogberg at the top of the blue paint.

Relentless pressure off the puck resulted in the opening marker as Toronto capitalized on a turnover. Justin Holl picked up the puck off the wall after an errant pass by Hogberg before making a move inside one Belleville player and firing top-shelf, short-side past the Belleville goaltender from the right circle.

The Senators almost came roaring back to tie the game right after, but Pickard turned aside Ben Sexton.

After a successful penalty kill at the eight-minute mark, Chris Mueller and Ben Smith were both frustrated by the Belleville netminder before the Marlies went onto a power play of their own. It almost turned sour, however, as Adam Brooks’ attempt to straddle the offensive blue line resulted in a breakaway for Sexton. Pickard came to his team’s rescue yet again, and as the penalty expired, was called into action to rob Blunden after another dangerous Marlies turnover.

The action was now end to end, with Smith denied from adding to the lead before Toronto’s penalty kill went to work with Liljegren sat down for two minutes. After exiting the box, the Swedish defenseman went on a solo rush, cleanly beating his man and nearly scoring on a drive across the crease, drawing a penalty in the process.

On the resulting power play, Toronto doubled their lead. Debutant Josh Kestner, after breaking his stick on a slapshot attempt, grabbed a new twig from the bench and measured a wrister over Hogberg’s glove for his first AHL and professional goal.

Third Period

The Marlies have been dominant at turning leads into wins when in front after 40 minutes this season, but they were definitely guilty of some sloppy play in the third period. Consecutive power plays resulted in just one missed shot by Brooks and nearly a short-handed goal against, with Nielsen forced into a penalty after getting beat.

Once the penalty expired, the second-year defenseman had a chance to redeem himself on a breakaway but couldn’t find a way past Hogberg.

Toronto’s penalty killers could not do the job the next time around at the 11:25 mark, as Sexton finally beat Pickard, with Ryan Scarfo providing an excellent screen in front, to make it a one-goal game with a little under nine minutes remaining.

Finding themselves down a man 16 seconds later was far from ideal, and Pickard had to come up with another fantastic save to keep the Marlies’ lead intact.

Looking to hit Belleville on the counter, the Marlies almost left themselves too exposed in search of an insurance goal and were lucky not to allow a tying goal with two minutes left on the clock. Colin White’s excellent cross-ice feed found Sexton, but Pickard came flying out of his goal to smother the shot.

The 3-1 victory was finally sealed with 1:20 left to play thanks to rookie-veteran combination — Derian Plouffe battled down low for possession and flung a pass back toward the right circle that found Ben Smith, who made no mistake with a top-shelf finish to secure Toronto’s 26th road win of the season.

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies have accumulated 90 points with a record of 44-16-4 including 26 road victories in 32 games away from the Ricoh. The franchise record for road wins is 27 (accomplished two seasons ago), the AHL record is 28, and Toronto has six road games remaining on the schedule (credit Todd Crocker for the statistics).

Timothy Liljegren didn’t finish the first period after being hit hard into the boards by Mike Blunden. He returned for the middle frame and didn’t appear to be feeling any serious ill effects.

Calvin Pickard posted 28 saves and was the difference maker for Toronto. He’s now 19-8-0 on the season with a .924 save percentage.

“He was really good,” said Sheldon Keefe. “I didn’t think we gave up a lot, but when we did, it seemed like they were all around the net and he stood tall for us. The big breakaway save in the second period was game-changing for us.”

– Signed from Hamilton College on an ATO, 24-year-old goaltender Evan Buitenhuis backed up Pickard.

Ben Smith scored his 24th goal of the season and 50th point. Toronto’s captain is three goals away from reaching the 100-point milestone in the AHL.

Miro Aaltonen returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion on February 24 and centered a line with Dmytro Timashov and Kyle Baun.

Josh Kestner scored on debut and was given power play time from the get-go. He gelled nicely alongside Greening and Gauthier playing on the right side.

Derian Plouffe, signed last week out of Niagara College, recorded his first professional point in his second game with an assist on Ben Smith’s insurance marker.

– Saturday’s lines:

Brooks – Mueller – Smith
Timashov – Aaltonen – Baun
Greening – Gauthier – Kestner
Marchment – Plouffe – Clune

Marincin – Holl
Rosen – Liljegren
Nielsen – LoVerde


Game Highlights

Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe