The Marlies started their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms with two games and two wins this weekend. It was a critical step to pocket the big series lead at home before the action shifts to Allentown, PA, the Philadelphia suburb where the Lehigh Valley Phantoms actually play, for the next three games.

Marlies Lineup

The lines were unchanged in the two weekend games, and are still the same as two weeks ago when the Marlies defeated the Syracuse Crunch in the North Division Finals.

Andreas Johnsson – Miro Aaltonen – Carl Grundstrom
Dmytro Timashov – Chris Mueller – Ben Smith
Pierre Engvall – Frederik Gauthier – Colin Greening
Mason Marchment – Adam Brooks – Trevor Moore

Martin Marincin – Justin Holl
Calle Rosen – Vincent LoVerde
Travis Dermott – Timothy Liljegren

Don’t read too much in to the order of the lines here. The first line of forwards is definitely the most important and gets the most ice time, but the defensive pairings have situational flexibility, and aren’t in a specific order of how often they appear on ice. Also, Liljegren is out on the power play a lot, and the Marlies had a lot power plays this weekend for him to participate.

Garret Sparks started both games. Calvin Pickard’s only appearance in the playoffs so far at the tail end of back-to-back games in the Crunch series. There was speculation he might show up as the starter Sunday, but he was back watching form the bench. He did still get in some action that game though, but more on that later.

Scratches for the Marlies in both games were Andrew Nielsen, Rich Clune, Kyle Baun, and Jeremy Bracco. Andreas Borgman continued to sit out with an injury. After returning for a part of one game in the last series, and then an awkward collision and fall driving him out in obvious pain and difficulty to walk. As reported previously, he does not appear to have yet even returned to practice with the team.

Alex Lyon started both games for the Phantoms. That’s a name anyone who even casually follows AHL hockey or the Marlies will have heard of recently because of his performance in the Phantoms’ Atlantic Division Finals series where he played through a six hour long quintuple overtime game, stopping 94 of 95 shots on goal and getting his team a win. Lyon was not ever drafted. The Flyers plucked him from the Yale University Bulldogs two years ago, and he has since made his NHL debut. He could be one of the biggest obstacles to a Marlies victory in this series, and he was on Sunday, though not so much on Saturday.

Watching from the Phantoms bench (or the stool by the zamboni door, actually) is 28-year-old journeyman Dustin Tokarski, who has NHL experience with all of the Lightning, Canadiens, and Ducks, but has not actually seen any NHL ice this season.

Saturday’s Game

Can you ask for a better start to a playoff series than your top line scoring two goals in the first period of the first game? Well, it could perhaps have been a faster start. It was more than five minutes into the game before the Marlies registered a shot on goal. It came when Mueller was slashed and the Marlies converted on the ensuing power play.

It was Miro Aaltonen who scored again to give the Marlies a 2-0 lead.

Sparks made one of his first crazy saves of the weekend to temporarily keep the Phantoms off the board, but by the end of the period, they tied it up. Marchment went to the box for roughing, a call which he vehemently disagreed with, and the Phantoms got on the board on the following power play.

Any momentum left was lost less than a minute into the second period when the Phantoms tied up the game.

While Grundstrom had an interesting scoring chance from a drop pass (players that develop in the SHL really love their drop passes) it was some bad clearing attempts by Holl and Rosen that led to a feeling the Phantoms had the Marlies on the ropes.

It got worse at the halfway point in the period when Johnsson went to the box for boarding. This was, in my opinion, a bad call. It was not boarding as neither player was really facing the boards. It didn’t make sense. Johnsson appealed to deaf ears, and it then went from bad to worse when Dermott picked up a double minor for high-sticking less than a minute later.

If you want to talk about adversity early in a game, this was it. A 5-on-3 penalty kill in a critical first game is not something you want to face. The Phantoms were glad for it, though, and managed to score, taking the lead. The Marlies killed off the balance of Dermott’s penalty and then things finally turned solidly in their favour and Captain Smith tied up the game.

Smith noted it was an important boost in momentum for the team, especially his line, saying “Our line had a turnover and they scored on us early in that period,” adding “it would have been a different game going into the third down a goal.”

With only three minutes left in the third, Brooks is setup for a scoring chance, but he doesn’t realize he has the puck coming to him and can’t get turned around to make the play work. No matter though. Only seconds later another play comes together for him, and he seals the Marlies 4-3 win over the Phantoms.

Sunday’s Game

This game felt far different from Saturday’s but not as you would expect from the shots-on-goal stats. The Marlies finished the first period with 20 SOG to the Phantoms 9.

Engvall quickly got the first major scoring chance of the game, but it didn’t work out. He and his linemates have done well in the playoffs so far, with Engvall himself becoming a hot topic for scoring three goals in the first two rounds, however his whole line was shutout of any goals or assists in these two games against the Phantoms.

Lehigh Valley actually scored first on a goal by Mark Friedman (he’s from Toronto, but is not related to Elliotte). However, the fact the Phantoms took three penalties in the period caused the SOG numbers to make more sense, and explain how the Marlies tied up the game.

That’s Moore’s fourth goal of the season. Or, was it? Moore celebrated as though he had tipped it in, but it was the announcement awarded the goal to Smith. A very careful review shows the puck may have deflected off of Smith’s skate before going in the net. However, the league later changed their mind and awarded the goal to Moore. Whichever Marlies player actually did touch it last, it will now forever be in the books as a goal by Moore.

There were no goals in the second period but still a lot of action. Two penalties were handed out each to the Marlies and Phantoms, though neither team could convert of their power plays. In one memorable incident the Marlies had about thirty seconds of power play time not only with the Phantoms down one man, but another without his stick. Oskar Lindblom dropped it (possibly it was broken and he couldn’t pick it up again per the rules) and continued to play without it. The Marlies kept up the pressure, but, with little surprise, it was that same stick on the ice that wound up deflecting a pass by Liljegren out of the zone to end their best chance to score on that power play. Somedays every improbable thing happens to go against you.

Dermott and Goulbourne had an interesting few moments tangled up on the ice. I don’t know what started it, but neither wound up with a penalty. Maybe Dermott was simply trying to determine the Goulbourne Identity?

Another chance for the Marlies on a power play went wide right from in front of the net. This game was a continuation of an old trend where the Marlies power play seems to find its way to get one, which is good, but then no more.

Mikahil Vorobyev is a Flyers first round pick from 2015 playing his first season in North America. He scored five minutes in to the third period to give his team the lead, but only 13 seconds later it was Grundstrom time!

A hilarious moment came when Johnsson was chasing down a puck through to the Phantoms end of the ice, but the play was blown dead for icing. Johnsson had clearly made it to the puck first per the rules to keep play going. The officials still called for a faceoff all the way back in the Marlies zone and the crowd immediately launched into a chorus of boos. Johnsson went ballistic. Seeing they had made an obvious error, they found a compromise to move the faceoff to center ice. This is where Dallas Eakins would remind you the AHL is a development league for officials too. Fortunately, this error didn’t cost the Marlies the Calder Cup.

Overtime started with everyone quickly wondering if the Marlies had lost. On a play by the net a shot was made by Vecchione of the Phantoms. The top of the netting flew up as though hit by the puck, the water bottle moved, and then the goal light went on. After a collective gasp by everyone, and some celebration by the Phantoms, there were a few questions. First, how could the puck have wound up behind the net if it went in the net? What caused the net to move? Could the puck have gone through the net?

The answer was that the puck was deflected over the net by Holl’s stick. Attempting to do the same, Gauthier raised his stick up but got it stuck in the netting at the exact same moment the puck passed by, which made the netting twitch like it was hit by the puck, and the goal judge to flick on the light. It took about five minutes for the review to determine that was really what happened.

Lost in the excitement is how this sequence started with several Phantoms players well covered, but winding up wide open to receive that first pass from the corner and setup the shot towards Sparks which led to Vecchione’s chance to end of the game. It was a moementary but high risk lapse in otherwise good concentration in the overtime.

After another scare where Dermott made a great diving stick block followed up by Sparks with another save, the game was brought to an end in style by Miro Aaltonen with the help of three Swedes.

Post Game Thoughts and Comments

Aaltonen was labelled “Miro the Hero” immediately after the game, with the crowd chanting that when announced as the first star. He humbly suggested it was everyone else who did the work. “I was a little bit slow. [Rosen] and [Johnsson] passed, like, unbelieveable [passes],” adding that it was easy to put it in the net thanks to them. However, with three goals in two games, you can’t deny he’s been one of the key players in the two Marlies wins.

“The coaching staff, the training staff; I think they prepared us pretty well.” - Ben Smith

There were a few times I thought the Marlies were in trouble on Saturday, particularly when Johnsonn went to the box for that non-boarding boarding call, followed by Dermott’s double minor, but they rallied back to win it with two more goals. Smith summed it up saying the eleven days off may have hindered them a little bit to get into hig gear. “I think it took us a little bit to get going. It wasn’t that bad, but I think guys were feeling their legs and their wind a bit.” He added he did feel well prepared for this to happen “The coaching staff, the training staff; I think they prepared us pretty well.”

Sunday was nerve wracking through the whole game. The Marlies looked caught flat-footed a few other times dealing with the speed of 2014 draft pick Travis Sanheim.

While he has jets on his skates, he still needs to work on getting some breaks installed and not ‘accidentally’ attempting to destroy Garret Sparks again.

There were about four occasions Sparks kept the Marlies in the game after the Phantoms made it through all other lines of defence and had an open shot on net, like this one in OT by ex-Marlies player TJ Brennan.

I don’t know what Marchment is saying to opponents on the ice, but he sure seems to agitate them. In every series he’s a target of hits and cross checks and the general taking out of frustration by the other team. However, he’s still meeting, if not once again exceeding expectations. He had a really solid chance for his third goal of the playoffs stopped by Lyon and is always out there working hard to keep the play alive in the offensive zone.

The Phantom’s Cole Bardreau needs to be more careful with his checks. He badly mistimed one and wound up hurling himself inside the Marlies bench, head down, legs in the air. This is where I noted above that Calvin Pickard saw some action in the game. He made sure to give a friendly hello with his glove mashed on Bardeaus face as he flipped him back up over the boards.

Grundstrom didn’t know Sweden had won the World Championship. When told after the game he was quite happy. He was probably surprised they could do it with so many of the best young Swedes playing for the Marlies that day.

We’re keeping an eye on what’s happening out in the Western Conference. The Texas Stars (Dallas Stars affiliates) are playing the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks affiliates). It would be fun to have the Marlies face the IceHogs solely for the appearance of Cody Franson. The very tall ex-Leafs defenceman has 9 points in 9 games so far in the playoffs.

The Next Games

The series now moves to the Phantoms territory in Lehigh Valley. While the Marlies equipment left on a bus shortly after the game on Sunday, the players get the treat of flying out on Monday. The games will be Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, all at 7:00 p.m.

The AHL standard format for Conference Finals’ series is two home, three away, two home, where ‘home’ is the team with home ice advantadge, in this case, the Marlies. This means there’s no way we will know if there will be a game six back in Toronto until at least the end of Friday’s game. If there is, it would be on Monday, May 28, at 7 p.m.