The Marlies have clinched a playoff spot and are on track to finish first in points across the entire AHL, but that doesn't mean the team is taking it's foot off the gas pedal and coasting through the rest of the season.
While the Maple Leafs played the Red Wings on Saturday, the teams' AHL affiliates battled it out down the street at Ricoh Coliseum. In a game was that was at times quite physical, the Marlies ramped up their offence against a strong Griffins team to win 6-3.
The first period started off with some big hits, Connor Brown receiving the hardest one, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving by both teams. Two minutes in to the period, the Griffins' Xavier Ouelette received a hooking penalty, and things calmed down a bit as the Marlies went on their first power play of the game.
There were two solid scoring chances against Griffins' goalie Jared Coreau, including a great one by Zach Hyman, but they didn't end up getting the puck in the net. However a few minutes later, Hyman would end up with the first goal of the game.
Ben Smith threw a shot at the Griffins net which missed, but Hyman was right there waiting to pick it up. There was some sloppy scrambling for the loose puck by the Griffins' defence and goalie, but it popped out behind them, and Hyman hit it into the net.
Shortly following the subsequent face-off, a big hit on Ty Stanton, who was recently signed to an ATO out of the WHL, led to a mini-scrum in the corner. Rich Clune, who was wearing the 'C' for this game, decided to jump in and everything quickly escalated as he flew in fists-first, not particularly discriminatory about who he punched.
When the whole mess was over Clune had earned a 10 minute misconduct and a double minor for roughing. Taylor Doherty also picked up a rough ingredient penalty, as did the Griffins' Louis-Marc Aubry.
The parade to the box continued about 40 seconds later with coincidental minors by Connor Carrick for cross-checking, and the Griffins' Martin Frk for roughing.
The first puck to get past Bibeau was at 14 minutes in the period. Dan Cleary (yes, he's still playing), received a pass right in front of the net. Bibeau looked a little surprised by the quick pass, and was still re-positioning himself to stop the shot when Cleary had already launched it up high into the net.
Towards the end of the period Hyman had another great scoring chance after intercepting the puck at the blue line. While he couldn't get it past Coreau here, casually watching him through the game it felt like every time he had the puck on the attack he was dangerous. He also had some great work in front of the Griffins' net obstructing play, and being in position to bang the puck into the net, as he did on the first goal.
The first period wrapped up on a low note with the Griffins' Mark Zengerle picking up a match penalty for spearing Mark Arcobello.
Zengerle's match penalty for spearing penalty meant the Marlies had a 5 minute power play, about 3:40 of which was carried into the second period and they made good use of it.
In an amazingly beautiful play, Josh Leivo skated down low along the boards, passing the puck to Hyman who was left alone at the side of the net. Hyman immediately passed it up to Brown, who had sneaked up towards the front of the net, and he fired it right past Coreau. It was like something they had practiced in drills a hundred times - maybe they have - and they executed it perfectly.
The Griffins' Andy Miele responded with a goal at 6:20 in the period, but then it was time for some new Marlies to shine.
Recently signed to a try out contract after playing for Canisius college, Shane Conacher scored his first goal in a pro-hockey game at 12:32.
Conacher explained the setup. "Hyman made a great play to get the puck loose there, and I just fed [Ben Smith], who passed it back to me and I squeaked it under the goalie."
Only 9 seconds later, Tony Cameranesi scored his first goal in a pro-hockey game. "It was a nice chip right off the wall. I tried to make my way toward the net and I kind of had a two on one with Clune. I started to fall so I figured I would put it on net, and it went in, so I'll take it."
Cameranesi was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2011, and had spent the past four years playing college hockey for University of Minnesota-Duluth. He was still trying to take in all that happened after the game "It's still a little surreal. It's awesome to have the support of all the guys in the locker room. It was a cool moment for me, that's for sure."
"The shift after a goal is always the biggest shift. For [Cameranesi] to get that goal right after me, it was awesome. The boys just kept rolling after that." added Conacher.
Marlies' coach Sheldon Keefe was happy that Conacher and Cameranesi were making effective use of this opportunity. "This is a chance for them to get some time in the league, a chance to show where they're at going in to the summer."
The third period was all Marlies, with Ben Smith scoring on a power play, and then Sam Carrick scoring the final goal of the game. The Marlies won 6-3. Shots on goal were a near even 31-32. Obviously it was not a great night for Griffins goalie Coreau, leaving with a 0.813 sv%.
Keefe was happy with the performance. "A game like today we were really challenged against a great team. It was a good test for us, and I thought we handled it well."
Regardless of already clinching a playoff spot, Keefe explained that it's more important than ever for the Marlies to stay focused on winning "As you go through the regular season with the type of team that we've had, scoring a lot of goals; we played a lot of games where playoff type hockey wasn't really happening."
"Playoff hockey will be here before we know it." he noted. The regular ends on April 17. "We've challenged our group to get our game solid, recognize how it is we need to play as a group when the playoffs begin."
The Marlies next game is Friday at Ricoh Coliseum, which kicks off a stretch of 3 games in 3 days. After playing on Friday they hit the road to upstate New York to play the Syracuse Crunch at 7:00PM Saturday, and then in a very tight turnaround to play the Albany Devils at 3:00PM Sunday.