Unbeaten on home ice and winners of nine straight playoff games, the Toronto Marlies are heading to the Calder Cup Final after sweeping the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
This was yet another highly impressive performance from the Marlies in shutting down the AHL’s second-best regular season team in their own barn.
With the backing of a fervent home crowd, the Phantoms began the game with the intent of crashing and banging away at the Marlies and connected with a few big hits early.
The Marlies were not easily put off their stride, however, and should have taken the lead just over a minute in when Miro Aaltonen whiffed on a shot with an empty cage to aim at following an impressive opening shift from the top line.
With the Phantoms coming at the Marlies hard and looking to be aggressive early, the Marlies were composed with the puck breaking out and managed to catch them for a few odd-man opportunities the other way. Pierre Engvall and Colin Greening were unable to make a 2-on-1 count before Toronto couldn’t capitalize on the game’s first power play.
Garret Sparks was only called on to make one save of note — turning aside Danick Martel — before the last scoring chance of the period fell to Greening on a breakaway, but Alex Lyon was back to his best in denying the veteran forward.
For all Lehigh’s bluster and effort, Toronto led in shots 9-4 after 20 minutes and struck early in the middle frame.
Consecutive penalties presented the Marlies with 41 seconds of a two-man advantage, and predictably, it was Andreas Johnsson who broke the deadlock with assists from Calle Rosen and Chris Mueller.
The game’s opening goal sparked a period of chances for both teams. Sparks made a handful of excellent stops to keep the lead intact, while Lyon was also playing his part by turning aside Mueller and Vincent LoVerde before pulling off an incredible last-ditch right pad save to rob Greening on a breakaway.
The Phantoms finally gave their fans something to cheer about with a tying goal on their first power play of the period at the 16:34 mark. It was far from the Marlies best penalty kill effort, and Sparks over-committed too far to his right, allowing Travis Sanheim a huge target to fire home into on a feed from Colin McDonald.
Toronto’s second straight penalty kill was a much better effort, with Johnsson coming within a whisker of a short-handed marker on a drive to the net.
Normal service was resumed back at even strength, where Toronto could easily have taken a lead heading into the third period, but the chances went begging, including a near highlight reel tic-tac-toe play from the Marlies top line.
Heading into the final frame, the next goal was always going to be pivotal and there was an air of inevitability about the way the Marlies retook the lead with three minutes on the clock.
A relentless shift from Engvall, Gauthier and Greening hemmed Lehigh in their own zone and the Marlies were able to bring in fresh legs with a line change while in possession. On stepped the dominating top line, who continued the cycle to good effect.
Johnsson was able to create some space for himself low in the right circle before beating Lyon five-hole, giving the Marlies a 2-1 lead.
Trevor Moore came close to netting an insurance marker after a burst of speed from Adam Brooks created some space, while Sparks had to be alert to turn aside Phil Varone on a cross-ice feed from Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
With Lyon to the bench for the final 2:33 of regulation, Lehigh threw the kitchen sink at Toronto in an attempt to keep their season alive.
Sparks made three saves of note, but perhaps the best and most important stop was not made by the Marlies goaltender — defenseman Martin Marincin came up huge with a vital kick save by the side of the net to rob Varone of a certain goal with 1:15 remaining.
They may have been slightly bent out of shape, but these Marlies proved again that they don’t break, securing the win, a series sweep, and progression to the Calder Cup Final thanks to an empty-net goal from Moore.
There were still 42 seconds on the clock, but the celebrations on the Toronto bench began as the Marlies knew they’d earned the right to play hockey in June.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies limited Lehigh to just a combined 39 shots through the two games played at the PPL Center — a remarkable effort against the regular season’s best offensive team in their own building.
“This was a deep team, and we were going to need all four lines,” said Keefe. “All four lines came through for us.”
That goes for both ends of the rink.
“Each of our lines, what we’re looking to do is set up the next line to have a good shift, and it’s process,” said Keefe. “You’re playing against good teams and you need to methodically look to break them down and not give up much in the process — that’s what we’re looking to do here, especially against a team that is good on home ice. We wanted to make sure we were really dialled in defensively and limited our mistakes, and that we stayed fresh and stayed fast.”
– Toronto will face either Texas Stars or Rockford IceHogs in the Calder Cup Final. The Stars hold a 3-2 series lead with games six and seven to be held in Texas.
History was repeated as six years ago to the day Toronto cemented their first Calder Cup Final appearance with a victory against the Oklahoma City Barons. The Marlies will be hoping for a better outcome this time around.
Rest should be in Toronto’s favour, as they’ll have a full week off before the Final begins and have played just 13 games total on their path to the championship series. So too will home-ice advantage, as the Marlies were, of course, the regular season champs and will start the Final at the Ricoh.
– Andreas Johnsson continued his domination of these Calder Cup playoffs with a pair of goals. Second in overall post-season scoring with 15 points (6-9-15) in nine games, Johnsson is the only player in the top 15 scorers to have played fewer than 10 games (1.67 points per game is first in the league).
– Carl Grundstrom, Miro Aaltonen and Chris Mueller all recorded their 10th point of the playoffs. Grundstrom is ranked second in rookie scoring and finished the Lehigh series with four points (2-2-4).
– Garret Sparks posted 19 saves for his 10th playoff victory. He was incredible in this series, posting a combined .948 SV% through four games, including one shutout.
– Friday’s lines: