Sunday was the Marlies' Fan Appreciation Day, and the final regular season game at Ricoh Coliseum. The team did not disappoint by both giving away merch, a dozen signed jerseys, and, of course, also winning the game.
But that winning the game part didn't come easy, and was rather sloppy at times. Things could have turned out completely the opposite were it not for Garret Sparks stopping 45 of the 47 shots on goal.
Sparks joked about his workload in the game saying, "There was a lot of shots, a lot of action, but if you're going to get an opportunity to play sixty minutes of hockey you may as well pack as many shots as possible in it."
The Marlies once again got off to a hot start, with Solar Bears call-up Eric Faille scoring in the second minute of the game. Jordan Hickmott carried the puck into the Americans' zone, and threw it at the net where Faille was waiting to shoot it past Americans' goalie Linus Ullmark.
If the name Ullmark sounds familiar, you may remember him in net for the Buffalo Sabres at the start of the NHL season. He was also the starting goalie for MODO while William Nylander and Viktor Loov played with the team from 2013-15.
The Americans had the Marlies scrambling with six minutes left in the period. Sparks had sprawled down on the ice to cover a shot, but the puck popped out from under him. One of the Marlies' defenders attempted to shove the puck under him, but it popped out again, right on to the stick of Americans' Evan Rodrigues. Rodrigues took a shot but it was weak and didn't go in. He actually laughed with some of the Marlies about missing such a rare point blank scoring chance.
Early in the second period John Kurtz had a partial breakaway but wasn't able to score. Shane Conacher also had a great scoring chance.
Sparks continued to make save after save as the Americans kept up the pressure for the next 10 minutes. His teammates lent a hand blocking shots, but that did not go well for Kasperi Kapanen.
Kapanen blocked a hard slap shot and was down on the ice for some time. He struggled back to the bench and didn't play the rest of the period. It looked like it hit his knee or shin. He didn't play again for the rest of the game and was replaced on the top line by Conacher. Keefe did not yet have an update on his condition after the game.
With under four minutes left the Marlies fourth line kept up pressure on the Americans. Persistence paid off for Hickmott. After having a shot on a rush blocked by Ullmark, then seconds later another shot deflected wide, he managed to get it in the net the third time after skating in close, mostly unnoticed by the Americans' defence.
The Marlies were still keeping up the pressure and Ullmark did not like it. On a stoppage of play he had a temper tantrum, grabbed the puck and took a baseball swing on it, sending it way up in the air and down to center ice. The officials gave him a stern talking to, and he probably could have received a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, but they chose to let it go.
The Marlies looked set to end the period up 2-0, but T.J. Foster took a hooking penalty, and the Americans' Cole Schneider scored the first goal of the night on Sparks, with only 20 seconds left in the period.
Scoring in the third period started with Tony Camaranesi, earning his second goal since joining the team from college. Camaranesi started the rush from the neutral zone, easily out-skating the lone Americans' defender Michael Sdao, and sliding the puck past Ullmark.
The game wound up with several more spectacular saves by Sparks, but one puck managed to sneak through an opening between his arm and chest. Eric Faille picked up an empty net goal with two minutes left.
Reflecting on the game Sparks was happy to have the support of his teammates handling some of the more difficult shots but knew he had a well earned win with his 0.957sv% performance.
"They made a couple saves for me, and I definitely got a few fortunate bounces, but I never quit on pucks and I never say die. Until the red light is on it's not a goal," he said.
Keefe was looking forward to seeing him in the playoffs.
"I thought [Sparks] made some terrific saves for us, he was athletic, and I really liked how competitive he was." He did not commit to one particular goalie as starter for the playoffs.
As for the pressure and expectations heaped on a team of young players who finished first in the league, Keefe thinks it's a positive.
"I think it's a terrific thing for their development."
The learning opportunity for the team was clearly important to him.
"In order to have pressure it means you had to accomplish something, and you have to have some sort of expectations. These guys have earned that. It's a big step in their development now to deal with it," he said.
The Marlies will start the Calder Cup Playoffs on the road on Saturday. They will play against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the first round best-of-5 series. The first home game will be Thursday April 28.
Goal highlights form the game are in the video below.