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Marlies win playoff opener despite sitting out recent leading scorer Colin Smith

When you can sit your leading scorer of two months and win convincingly, your team is pretty good. The Marlies did that in their 4-1 win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in Game 1 of their pursuit of the Calder Cup.

Christian Bonin | TSGPhoto.com

If there were ever a testament to the strength of the Toronto Marlies formidable American Hockey League (AHL) roster, it would be that they sat their leading scorer for the last third of the season in their playoff opener.

At the end of a historic season, the Toronto Marlies’ best player down the stretch might have been one of the organization’s newest faces.

Colin Smith, acquired with a fourth round pick in a Feb. 21 trade that saw the Toronto Maple Leafs send centre Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche, led the AHL’s best team in scoring after his arrival. Smith, a seventh round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, registered 22 points in 23 games with the Marlies.

And while Smith won’t draw attention on a team composed of some of the AHL’s best scorers, including William Nylander and Mark Arcobello, his production speaks itself according to head coach Sheldon Keefe.

"He just works, he loves to play the game, he’s produced for us, he’s played centre, left wing, right wing, powerplay, penalty kill," Keefe said following the Marlies’ final game and win of the season.

And while Smith has played centre his whole life, he’s happy to play any role for the Marlies. Keefe credits the diminutive 5-10 centre for his work ethic. Smith was the only of the Marlies’ top players who played in all six games on the final two weekends of the regular season.

"He’s been here and he’s been solid every day," Keefe said. "He has worked."

The Marlies could have used that work ethic in Game 1 of their series against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers too.

The Marlies came out slow, out scored 1-0 and out-shot 20-12 in the first period after a sluggish T.J. Brennan turnover.

But the slow start didn’t last, and the Marlies depth proved to be too strong as Brennan, William Nylander (what a shot), Nikita Soshnikov and Connor Brown all scored to give the Marlies the 4-1 win on the back of some strong goaltending from Antoine Bibeau (31 saves), even without Smith.

Smith’s late-season surge wasn’t the first time he’d produced big offensive numbers either.

The Marlies’ third-leading scorer over the span of the full season (his time with the San Antonio Rampage included), Smith was a First Team All-Star in the Western Hockey League in 2013 when he registered 106 points in 72 games with the Kamloops Blazers while serving as an assistant captain.

He knew he could elevate his game and show the Leafs organization that he was one of their best prospects when he heard he was traded.

"I just saw it as what an amazing opportunity," Smith, 22, said after the 4-2 win. "I’ve obviously had a decent end of the year. I think playing on a good team helps individually and collectively.

So far, he thinks he has succeeded. When Smith registered a point, the Marlies went 10-1-1-1 this season.

"For me, I thought I was able to use the way the team played to up my game," he said. "That’s what I wanted to do when I came in was to try and take this as an opportunity to improve my game individually and help the team and I’ve taken strides in that regard."

Smith’s thankful for the opportunity the Marlies have given him, at a young age, to thrive.

"It’s been a privilege to be here and I’m just trying to make the most of it," he said.

After making his NHL debut with the Avalanche last season, Smith thinks his ability as a passer and someone who plays with energy has helped improve an "already great team."

"My playmaking is my best skill, I like to try and use everyone and use people around me," he said.

As the Marlies, fresh off the third best record in AHL history (a .750 win percentage), prepare for a Calder Cup run, Smith will need to continue play the best hockey of his young career once he gets back into the lineup. And he will.

"He’s been a really handy player for us to have around and he’s going to be important for us in the playoffs," Keefe finished.

"With a team like this, there’s an opportunity to go to the playoffs and make a long run," Smith added, with a smile.

And while the Marlies are capable of making that run with or without Smith, it’s only a matter of time until he makes an impact and draws into the series (particularly with the AHL’s infamous back-to-backs).