The Toronto Marlies needed a third-period comeback to keep their late season points streak intact at home against the Laval Rocket.
Sheldon Keefe opted to field what looked more like a pre-season lineup for the penultimate game of the regular season, but a third-period offensive outburst got the job done for the Marlies, whose 6-4 victory sees them finish with an 11-1-0 record against Laval this season.
Toronto found themselves trailing after just 89 seconds after Jeremy Gregoire split Andrew Nielsen and debutant Jeff King through the middle of the ice before solving Calvin Pickard.
Chances followed for both teams, with the Marlies coming close through Carl Grundstrom and Brady Ferguson before a tying goal arrived with seven minutes played. A shot from Nielsen hit Kristian Pospisil in front of net and the puck fell kindly for the debuting forward, who showed good composure to finish on the second opportunity.
Laval struck the post on a following power play before retaking the lead on a gift from Vincent LoVerde. The veteran defenseman decided to throw a no-look reverse pass from the back boards into the right circle and found the stick of Anthony Beauregard, who scored his first of the season.
Despite creating a couple scoring opportunities inside the final minute, Toronto trailed 2-1 after 20 minutes and needed 12 saves from Pickard to keep the game within reach.
It took just 25 seconds of the middle frame for Toronto to find the tying goal. Grundstrom laid down the foundation for the goal as he worked his way down the left wing before teeing up Miro Aaltonen in the heart of the slot. The Finnish forward ripped a one-time shot past Michael McNiven for his 19th of the season.
Toronto earned a power play shortly after but lacked any fluency with the extra man. Back at even strength, Aaltonen wasn’t able to score a second on a carbon copy chance to his early strike.
The Marlies were still guilty of sloppiness without the puck and Pickard had to be at his best to deny Matt Taormina twice on separate occasions.
The goaltender could do nothing about the visitors taking a lead into the third period, however, after another defensive breakdown from the Marlies. Markus Eisenschmid skated down the right side and found Jordan Boucher, who ghosted in behind three Marlies for an easy tap-in.
Whatever was said in the second intermission had the desired effect as Toronto struck twice within the opening three minutes. Dmytro Timashov fired home a beautiful backhand shot from an acute angle after Nielsen’s initial effort produced a rebound.
Excellent work from Ferguson to recover possession on the left wing allowed Pospisil to set up Erik Bradford to score in his season debut, giving Toronto the 4-3 lead.
The top line then combined to make it a two-goal lead at the seven-minute mark. After a drive to the net from Aaltonen, Grundstrom retrieved the loose puck and dished off to Trevor Moore, who set up Aaltonen just above the blue paint for a redirect tap-in.
The game fizzled out as a contest until a plethora of penalties with four minutes remaining. Laval gambled during four-on-four action by pulling McNiven and Trevor Moore slid the puck into the vacant cage to make it a 6-3 game.
Laval weren’t done, however, and after Pickard had made a couple of excellent saves, Adam Cracknell scored on the power play to reduce the deficit to two with just over a minute left on the clock.
With the Laval goalie pulled, Aaltonen just missed out on a hat-trick — his attempt to score on the empty net hit the post — and Calvin Pickard’s long-range attempt drifted just wide. Despite a bit of a late push from the Rocket, Toronto held on for their 53rd victory of the season and extended their points streak to nine games.
Post Game Notes
– Miro Aaltonen reached the 20-goal mark with a pair of goals and really should have had a hat-trick. Carl Grundstrom carried on where he left off Friday night with two assists. The two have found instant chemistry alongside Trevor Moore (1-1-2).
“They were outstanding today in the first and second period,” said Sheldon Keefe. “They just took over the hockey game, I thought. That was really good to see. The play of Grundstrom and Mooresy, I thought, really brought Miro to life today. Frankly, I think that’s a Miro we haven’t seen sine [Andreas Johnsson] left here. Getting that little piece of chemistry was something we wanted to come out of this weekend here.”
On Grundstrom, Keefe spoke of his ability to make an impact this playoff with last year’s experience under his belt:
Watching the game today, he has that ability [to be an offensive leader]. He showed some of that ability last year. Obviously, being a year older, we think he can make more of an impact now. His arrival is nice at this time of year and he’s an important player in the organization.
Carl is a guy who just needs some time and experience. His skill set is there. He is a competitor. He is really strong on the puck. The fact that he’s a year older and he’s more comfortable around here and more comfortable in his own way gives him an extra dose of confidence.
– Kristian Pospisil helped himself to a goal and an assist in his AHL debut.
– A pair of assists for Andrew Nielsen gives him six helpers in his last five games.
– Brady Ferguson was another call-up to pick up a pair of points (2a). The Texas native has accumulated three points in four games during his short AHL stint.
– Erik Bradford last suited up for the Marlies in April of 2015, scoring once in three games. Having been in the ECHL for the three seasons, this was his first taste of the AHL in three years. He took his goal well.
– Ian Scott backed up Calvin Pickard and it’s possible that the Leafs‘ 2017 draft pick could receive some playing time Sunday against Belleville at Ricoh Coliseum.
– Toronto’s first round playoff opponent has been confirmed as the Utica Comets. The five-game series will commence on Saturday, April 21.
– Saturday’s lines: