Hockey has a weird way of arranging itself sometimes. This week, the Toronto Marlies had three games to pick up as many points as they could, and while all of the games were incredibly important, one clearly stood out for statistical and sentimental reasons. Coincidentally, that happened to be the game they lost, but it was bookended by a pair of big wins.
Toronto vs. Oklahoma City (Wednesday)
The Marlies opened up their week with their final school day game of the season, packing Ricoh Coliseum at 11 AM to play in from of thousands of screaming children. It's hard to say whether those kids give home ice advantage or a headache, but it certainly lead to an interesting result.
The Barons struck first, thanks to a goal from former Marlies forward David Ling, but Troy Bodie answered within minutes, leading a push that went into the second period. Josh Winquist put a halt to the momentum with a goal, and for a stretch, the Marlies seemed unlikely to come out on top, but a pair of goals by Byron Froese secured the win.
Froese, who signed an AHL contract extension for next season earlier in the week, was elated to have helped seize the moment. "[The Barons are] a good team, a strong team, and it shows in the standings," said Froese after the game. "We know they've got some guys down right now, so we wanted to take advantage of that and get on the body a lot. We just tried to match their work ethic."
Toronto vs. Hamilton (Saturday)
Next up, the Marlies took on the Hamilton Bulldogs, who currently double as a rival and a team to chase in the standings. While Toronto was slow to pick up momentum, they did manage to get the first goal, courtesy of a calm and collected backhander by Greg McKegg to put his team up 1-0 in the first period.
From this point on, it seemed like their game to lose. While they weren't adding more goals to the scoresheet, the Marlies maintained control throughout, though ultimately, they weren't converting. This came back to haunt them in the third period, when Stuart Percy and Petter Granberg both took penalties. Hamilton converted on both powerplays, getting goals from Sven Andrighetto and Gabriel Dumont that brought them from trailers to leaders within a two minute span. Despite their best efforts, the Marlies were unable to equalize before the final buzzer.
This game marked the end of an era; with Hamilton moving to St. John's next year, the Marlies lose a local rival that they've spent years playing on an astonishingly frequent basis. Gord Dineen, who has been behind the bench for over 70 of these games in the past five years, admitted that he'll miss it to an extent. "Rivalries are one always one of those things you get up for. Certainly, the proximity of Hamilton, and the Montreal/Leafs side, there's a lot behind it... We'll certainly miss it, it gets your blood going every time you play those guys."
Toronto @ Rochester (Sunday)
Immediately after the Hamilton loss, the blue and white packed themselves onto a bus and headed won to Rochester, New York for a matchup against the Americans, affiliates of the Buffalo Sabres. While these two teams have seen a few playoff matchups against each other over the years, the Amerks have struggled of late, making this a prime opportunity to shake off the previous day's hiccup.
At first, it didn't appear like that would happen. Jayden Hart, a 20 year old rookie who just joined Rochester days before, scored his first professional goal early into the third period. But before the frame could close, Ryan Rupert converted a feed from William Nylander to effectively hit the reset button on the game heading into the second period.
From there, it was the Connor Brown show. Already having the secondary assist from Rupert's goal on his badge, Brown picked up a powerplay goal and set up Nylander for another tally in the second period. Not showing any signs of stopping, he also set up Greg McKegg for his 19th goal of the year early in the third period, giving the Marlies a 4-1 lead.
From there, the wheels fell off a little bit. Chad Ruhwedel picked up a pair of goals for Rochester in the closing minutes, but Toronto held on for the victory.
Player of the Week
Greg McKegg didn't have the most points on the team this week (a certain someone did that in one night), but he was probably their most consistent player, following up a strong showing last week with another pair of goals this time around. He's now up to nineteen on the season, which ties his total from last year despite having twelve games in hand.
I asked him what he felt was the biggest reason for his uptick in production, and the answer was pretty modest. "I think being in my third year of pro hockey, taking the previous years and building on that. The more you play in the league, the more you figure out little things."
His best game of the week was probably the loss against Hamilton, where he picked up five shots and found himself playing quality hockey on both sides of the rink.
Who's Hot, Who's Not?
It goes without saying that Connor Brown is hot. That four point night was the first of his professional career, and I doubt it'll be the last. HIs 55 points put him atop the league in rookie scoring and 11th overall. He still has ten more games to extend his record for the most points from a Marlies rookie.
Antoine Bibeau is still not, in the sense that the Marlies have yet to look back at him yet. It's amazing how he went from the goalie they were hyping up at the start of the year, to effectively becoming an afterthought. Dineen has insisted that they're just riding the hot guy at the moment, but with Gibson looking good but not spectacular this week, you have to wonder what the next step is.
Troy Bodie is neither, but he's back. The two game suspension is over, and he managed both a goal and a fight.
TJ Brennan is showing potential to heat up. We haven't seen last year's production out of him since coming back to Toronto, but a pair of assists on Sunday is a step in the right direction.
The Marlies play three games this week, and none of them will be easy matchups. They take on the Chicago Wolves on Wednesday night at Ricoh Coliseum in what will be the third-to-last home game of the regular season. If they would like more home games, this is a must-win, seeing as the Wolves are tied with Hamilton for that final playoff spot and are two points ahead of Toronto at the moment.
From there, they'll take on the Lake Erie monsters and Grand Rapids Griffins. The Monsters are also making a push towards the playoffs, but sit a little further back, while the Griffins' sights are set on securing their division title and possibly reaching the top seed in the Western Conference.
Obviously, the end goal is to pick up points in every game, but this week means a lot in particular. Chicago and Hamilton face each other, so at least one of them are getting two points. Milwaukee face Lake Erie twice and Texas once, so they'll either pull away or create new trailing competition for the Marlies. Toronto will lose one of the game in hand they have over the Bulldogs by the end of the week. Success is one thing, but with the schedule doing the Marlies no favours, they have no choice but to make a big impact this week.