The Toronto Marlies are sitting pretty at the halfway point in their quest for a first-ever Calder Cup championship.

There have been some standout individual performances, but the team’s success has been built on sound defensive play, balanced scoring, and without question the best goaltending duo in franchise history.

A huge reason why the Marlies posted the lowest goal against average during the regular season was the Hap Holmes Award-winning tandem of Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard, who continue to lead the way for the Marlies during this 2018 Calder Cup campaign.

Garret Sparks

Garret Sparks of the Toronto Marlies
Photo: Christian Bonin/

There’s little doubt that Garret Sparks is a talented goaltender, but this is the first time in his career that he’s been able to put the pieces together for a complete season. Before this year, Sparks had only played 122 regular season games (47 of which were for Orlando Solar Bears) since turning professional in 2013.

His setbacks have included injuries — usually coming at the worst times during spells of good form — as well as a well documented off-ice indiscretion, but Sparks turned a corner this past summer by getting himself in the best shape of his life physically and mentally in preparation for the 2017-18 campaign.

The Illinois native ended the AHL regular season first in GAA (1.79) and save percentage (.936), tied first in wins (31), and second in shutouts (6). Unsurprisingly, those were all career highs for Sparks, who posted a 31-9-2 record to become the winningest goaltender in Marlies franchise history while breaking his own single-season shutout record.

So far during the postseason, Sparks has been to go-to guy for head coach Sheldon Keefe even though it hasn’t always been plain sailing, particularly through Round 1.

The Utica series began with two victories for Sparks at Ricoh Coliseum, but two losses in NY state — including being pulled in game three — stirred up some questions as to who should be carrying the load between the pipes.

As has been his way this season, the 24-year-old netminder bounced back in the best possible fashion with a shutout in the winner-takes-all Game 5. Carrying on that vein of form into the North Division Final against Syracuse, Sparks recorded three victories with a .936 save percentage, banishing any doubts about his form and Keefe’s decision to make him the main guy in the playoffs.

Calvin Pickard

Calvin Pickard of the Toronto Marlies
Photo: Christian Bonin/

Since arriving via trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, Calvin Pickard has more than played his part in the Marlies‘ prosperous puck-stopping partnership.

After a turbulent couple of years in Colorado and then falling out of favour early on in Vegas, the Winnipeg native began his Toronto career in somewhat unconvincing fashion. A stellar first outing against the Providence Bruins — where he essentially stole two points for the Marlies — was followed by conceding eight goals on 50 shots in a pair of home losses.

From that point on, though, Pickard has been absolutely stellar despite essentially being the back-up, or 1B in this case, with 65% of his starts either coming in the second of a back-to-back or the third game of a long weekend.

Pickard rose to the task presented to him by finishing the season with a 21-9-2 record, giving up two or fewer goals on 19 occasions. Pickard’s record on the road was remarkable, as he lost just once in regulation away from Ricoh (14-1-2). His overall numbers saw him ranked 12th in save percentage (.918), ninth in wins (21) and seventh in GAA (2.31), although his impact has been greater than his statistics do justice.

A 1A/1B goaltending situation can sound better on paper than how it plays out in reality, and it’s not an arrangement that Mike Babcock or Lou Lamoriello are proponents of at the NHL level. The AHL schedule certainly lends itself more to the split workload, but it’s no guarantee the marriage is going to work out, especially when one goaltender (Pickard) has notable NHL experience to his name and suddenly wasn’t going to be an everyday starter at the AHL level in Toronto.

The dynamic between Sparks and Pickard, it turned out, could not have played out any better. While pushing one another, the goaltenders are genuinely rooting for one another at the same time and they certainly aren’t shy in that respect — whether it’s a fist bump during a break in play after a fantastic save or a bear hug in celebration after a win, each publicly revels in the other’s personal success.

The two are roommates on the road and a reliable sounding board for one another. Sparks noted in interviews this season that both of their games took off upon Pickard’s arrival, mentioning that the latter‘s love for the game has rubbed off on him in a positive fashion.

Pickard had taken on more of a cheerleader role during the first round, with only a relief effort required from him against Utica. But when Sheldon Keefe finally turned to his #2 goaltender for the pivotal Game 3 in Syracuse (second of a back-to-back), Pickard brought his regular season road form into his professional playoff debut.

The Winnipeg native may only have faced 19 shots, but he kept Syracuse at bay late in the second period when it looked as if the Crunch may mount a comeback before Toronto went on to claim a 7-1 victory and take a 3-0 series lead. Winning a Game 3 in such convincing fashion in the first game in Syracuse — where the Marlies lost every game in their seven-game loss to the Crunch last Spring — was a huge moment in the series victory.

Balanced Scoring

Photo: Christian Bonin/

Secondary scoring is always a key to success at this time of year. With two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs in the books, Toronto has nine skaters with six-plus points and 16 different players have found the net in the nine games so far. And it’s an unlikely line combination that is setting the tempo and lesser-known prospects that are leading the way for the Marlies.

The trio of Pierre Engvall, Frederik Gauthier and Colin Greening has a combined seven goals and 18 points, but it’s more than just the numbers. Even when the Marlies haven’t been at their best, this line has been consistently solid, relied on by the coaching staff in key moments and causing headaches for both playoff opponents so far.

I was left disappointed by what I saw live in person from Frederik Gauthier during the month of March. Whatever ailed him then has all but dissipated, as he appears rejuvenated and is playing with the type of physical edge Mike Babcock and the rest of the organization will be pleased to see. There’s nothing complicated about his game and the big centerman is at his most effective when making the high-percentage plays in the offensive zone. A testament to that, Gauthier is currently the Marlies’ leading points producer at even strength (seven points) in the postseason.

Colin Greening — most impactful offensively when using his size, strength and experience to win battles along the wall and drive the crease — has been a big part of the reason that line has been able to hem opponents in their own zone for long stretches, often looking to work the puck back to the point and crash the net. His ability to score should not go overlooked; despite often playing up against the opposition’s top lines, Greening found the net 16 times through the regular season and has chipped in three more so far in the playoffs.

Complementing the aforementioned pair is rookie Pierre Engvall. The talented Swedish winger has quickly become a fan favourite with his scoring touch (three ES goals in the playoffs), but his game is built on more than just the skill and finishing ability. He’s heeded the words of Sheldon Keefe by playing with more of a physical edge, which sets him up to utilize his lanky frame and long reach to keep the puck alive along the boards and strip opponents on the forecheck.

The headline act of the playoffs, outside of the goaltending, is arguably Trevor Moore. His sophomore year was nothing to write home about until something clicked for him in the final weeks of the regular season. The undrafted winger has been an offensive force, leading the Marlies in scoring with nine points (3-6-9), eight of which are primary markers.

Moore’s hard work, ability to track without the puck, and his speed are his greatest assets, but he’s found another facet to his game of late. So often his work-rate and speed would create scoring opportunities for him or open lanes to find teammates, but the final killer touch was missing from his game, for whatever reason. If the issue was confidence, Moore has found it in spades late in the season, with an assured touch around the net and some incredible play-making moments.

While Moore leads the team in points, Toronto’s leading playoff goal scorer at this juncture is actually Dmytro Timashov. Surprised? You have reason to be.

The left winger recorded 13 goals during the regular season but already has five through nine playoff games and is tied for the league lead (four) in power play markers. The-21-year old has benefited from playing alongside the experienced Chris Mueller and captain Ben Smith, but credit should not be taken away from Timashov, who has been clinical in front of the net.

Another thing to note about his game has been Timashov’s willingness to engage physically, especially during the series with Syracuse, as he surprised more than one opponent with solid contact along the boards forcing turnovers.

I’d also be remiss not to mention Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson, who have both made a huge impact since their return for the critical Game 5 against Utica.

It’s clear that Dermott is an even better defenseman than prior to his NHL call-up (the only note of caution has been that some over-confidence has created the odd issue back at the AHL level). With Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen both missing time through injury, Dermott’s return could not have been more timely. The team has benefited greatly from his excellent defensive play, his ability to lead breakouts, and his stellar work on the penalty kill (the Marlies PK has given up just one goal since his return).

Johnsson is also playing with swagger since returning from a stint with the Leafs.
The Swedish winger is second in team scoring with eight points (3-5-8) in five games. Sheldon Keefe has leaned on Johnsson in every facet of the game and he’s been particularly impactful on the power play, where he’s had a hand in four Marlie goals.

Fellow Swede Carl Grundstrom is built for playoff hockey, as he’s flourishing offensively and enjoying the more physical side of the game. His four goals are good for second on the team behind Timashov. Along with the brace he netted in Game 5 against Utica, Grundstrom added three points in the Syracuse series (1-2-3).

Grundstrom isn’t shy about shooting the puck and could easily have doubled his goal total by this point. Paired alongside Johnsson and Miro Aaltonen, the Scandinavian trio is proving it will be a tough assignment for any team to handle in this playoff campaign.


The Eastern Conference Final is now set: The Marlies will face Atlantic Division opponent Lehigh Valley Phantoms, with the series beginning on Saturday, May 19. I’ll have you covered with a match-up preview before the weekend.

Toronto Marlies Playoff Scoring – May 13

LWMoore, Trevor936914002501
LWJohnsson, Andreas535830201111.6
LWTimashov, Dmytro952712402100.78
LWEngvall, Pierre934722001810.78
CMueller, Chris9257-14102310.78
CGauthier, Frederik91673200910.78
RWSmith, Ben9167-20001900.78
LWGrundstrom, Carl942628102220.67
DMarincin, Martin906656001200.67
CAaltonen, Miro914524002000.56
CGreening, Colin931458013110.44
LWMarchment, Mason9213010001200.33
DDermott, Travis5112010101200.4
DRosen, Calle511202101300.4
CBrooks, Adam911232001300.22
DHoll, Justin911242002000.22
DLiljegren, Timothy9022-14001400.22
RWBracco, Jeremy4101-10001000.25
GPickard, Calvin20110000000.5
DLoVerde, Vincent901184001400.11
DBorgman, Andreas20000200000
DNielsen, Andrew60000200500
GSparks, Garret80000200000