There was something really interesting about how the Toronto Marlies advanced against the Utica Comets in round one of these Calder Cup playoffs. Trust was a central theme; lines didn’t really change short of injuries or NHL reinforcements, those reinforcements were thrown right back into the fire after a tough top-level elimination and without much time to re-adjust to the team they started the year with, and between the pipes, the team went all in on Garret Sparks in Game 5 despite him having his worst game and a half of the season in Games 3 and 4, despite having an Elite 1B in Calvin Pickard available, and having a series on the line.
It all worked out, and really, that was the only way it was worth working it out. Toronto wasn’t out of the two games it dropped, but signs of something between complacency and defeatism were there for the first time in a long time. Simply put, the team a rare date with adversity, and for the sake of their development and the sake of merit, they had to see it through, and they did.
Last night, they faced a new challenge in the Syracuse Crunch; the same team by name that eliminated them last year, with both teams still carrying very similar roster DNA. The Crunch are a team that plays fast and hard, keeps you on your toes, and tries to take you off your game in just about any way possible. They share a lot of similarities with their parent club, the Tampa Bay Lightning, but a fair few with the Boston Bruins as well; as in, what the Bruins are, rather than what they’re sold at.
Despite the Marlies being the best team in the league, this definitely wasn’t going to be easy. Nonetheless, Toronto took a big first step towards coming out ahead on Thursday night, winning the opening game of the series by a score of 6-4.
Toronto opened up the scoring a little prior to the midway point of the first period, getting a little bit of help from their kid line. Adam Brooks, who was on the quieter side against Utica after a red-hot end of the regular season, picked up his first pro playoff goal and point by redirecting a Martin Marincin point shot past Eddie Pasquale. From there the Marlies were able to draw two powerplays: one against Reid McNeill for a trip, and another against Kevin Lynch for a borderline at best hit on Vincent LoVerde.
The Lynch-instigated powerplay turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster for Toronto. An attempted breakout midway through the penalty turned into a disaster for the team, and of all people to point fingers at, Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson were left with their heads down and dejected. Dermott’s attempt at a reset caught Johnsson off guard, Johnsson’s move led to Mathieu Joseph stealing the puck and tying the game up, and could have led to the period ending on a sour note. Fortunately, Toronto’s other powerplay group was unphased by the mishap, and a crafty inner-slot pass by Trevor Moore set up Dmytro Timashov to restore the lead just 42 seconds later.
Special teams remained the theme in the second period, as both teams capitalized on their sole powerplay efforts. Former Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe equalized for Syracuse once again with Colin Greening in the box, while, in a bit of universe-balancing, Johnsson assisted Dermott for a powerplay dally while Joseph was left watching from his temporary cubicle. Toronto didn’t lose the lead again at this point; Mason Marchment opened up the third period’s scoring with his first of the playoffs, and while Lynch brought the game to within one on two separate occasions, Pierre Engvall’s third goal of the playoffs and Ben Smith’s empty-netter kept it out of reach for the Crunch.
Andreas Johnsson – Miro Aaltonen – Carl Grundstrom
Pierre Engvall – Frederik Gauthier – Colin Greening
Dmytro Timashov – Chris Mueller – Ben Smith
Mason Marchment – Adam Brooks – Trevor Moore
Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, Travis Dermott,
Vincent LoVerde, Timothy Liljegren, Andreas Borgman
- Toronto was not afraid to scramble their defensive pairings in this game. So much so, that I opted to just list the forwards above. Some of this was to give LoVerde some space after the Lynch hit, and a lot of it came after Andreas Borgman’s injury in the third.
- That said, there were a few pairs that the Marlies ran with some regularity. Dermott and LoVerde linked up together a fair amount in the final two periods, and the duo of Marincin and Justin Holl saw a lot of time towards the end of the game. Marincin, in particular, seemed to be leaned on for a decent share of faceoff-initiated shifts, often also playing with Timothy Liljegren.
- Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t have much of an update on Borgman’s injury after the game, but it is worth noting that he had just re-entered the lineup from a prior ailment. Should he be unavailable and Calle Rosen is still unfit to play, Andrew Nielsen is the likely option on Saturday.
- With this being a feeler-heavy game for both teams and with the Marlies never really trailing, it seemed like the Moore-Brooks-Marchment line was used sparingly in zone-heavy situations; Toronto leaned more on the Timashov-Mueller-Smith line in the offensive zone and the Engvall-Gauthier-Greening trio in the defensive zone. Nonetheless, the kids managed to put points up on the board, all getting two apiece, with some obvious help coming from the powerplay. A move that paid shockingly quick dividends in the third period was the swap of Engvall and Marchment on their lines; both players scored even-strength goals on their first shift with their new linemates.
- The Gauthier line was used as a shutdown line against Utica, and it seemed like that was the goal again last night. They started and finished most of the periods, and played mostly in the defensive zone. While Syracuse’s lines never really stayed consistent, they seemed to spend their time covering somewhere between 1 and 3 of Verhaeghe, Lynch, and Joseph.
- Syracuse outshot Toronto 16-5 in the third period. Obviously, there’s a lot of playing with fire involved there, and you’d like that not to happen, but score effects and a short bench definitely comes into play as well. They spent most of the third without Borgman, and the entire third with a lead, so it’s not much shock that the Crunch poured it on.
- Garret Sparks stopped 28 of 32 in Game 1. It was neither his best or worst nights; he kept the team in it when they needed him to, he made some big saves, but I thought that the Verhaeghe and second Lynch goals were both ones that he usually takes easy care of.
- I asked Keefe if the team had given much thought to Syracuse’s ability to throw teams off their games, as it was a big factor against them in last year’s series, and for the second consecutive year, the team has been near the top of the league in powerplay opportunities; usually indicative of speed and controlled pettiness (Toronto were 1st this year and 5th last year). He didn’t seem to phased by it, believing that only one or two players fully fit that mould on the Crunch this year.
- One who does is Daniel Walcott. The 24-year-old utility player (listed as a defenceman, often used as a forward) has a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents, and there were moments where he did yesterday, scrumming it up with Dmytro Timashov, Colin Greening, Frederik Gauthier, and drawing Travis Dermott into coincidental roughing minors. However, the Marlies got the last laugh there, as he ended up with no shots on goal and was fooled by the kid line twice, on Brooks and Engvall’s goals.
Overall, I’d consider this a strong start for the Marlies. They matched Syracuse’s intensity while taking half as many trips to the penalty box, the powerplay was clicking, they held on despite only having five defenceman and a couple of forwards playing banged up, and they’ve left a dent in Pasquale’s armour with the five they put past him in just 20 shots. They’ll look to mix a few more of their trademark high-skill plays into that rotation and carry the momentum into Game 2, which takes place on Saturday afternoon at Ricoh Coliseum.---
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