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Toronto Marlies cement lead of the AHL North Division

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The Marlies picked up two big wins against the Crunch over the weekend.

Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com

With the Toronto Marlies sitting at the top of the AHL North Division, and the Syracuse Crunch sitting at the bottom, one could expect the sweep was an inevitable and easy accomplishment. While two wins was the actual outcome, they certainly didn’t come easy. The Crunch made the Marlies work hard for those wins, reminding them their position at the top of the standings is not something you can keep without a lot of hard work.

The Crunch eliminated the Marlies in last seasons’ Calder Cup playoffs, so there was naturally something to prove this weekend. The teams have faced-off once before this season already, with the Marlies winning 4-2 back on October 27th.

This time, the Crunch brought someone new to the game. Fresh off a trade from the Arizona Coyotes, Louis Domingue made his debut, replacing Michael Leighton who had a less than stellar 0.868 all-situations sv%.

Domingue has spent the past few seasons with the Arizona Coyotes as a backup to Mike Smith with a sv% below league average, but still respectable for a backup. He started-off poorly this season and was traded to the Lightning last week.

He is definitely one of those goalies that, simply by watching, you can tell is quite a character. Immediately apparent was how he loves to play the puck. He’ll go out front or behind the net to play it any chance he can. That’s something that got him in to trouble on Saturday. More on that below. He would also do the same ritual every time he entered the net, whether at the start of the game, or simply after an ice scrape, he goes down on his knees, puts his head down, and looks like he is talking to himself. He’s definitely one of those goalies you know has rituals he takes very seriously.

Meanwhile, the Marlies had someone new too. Meet Pup, Duke’s new best friend and second mascot of the team.

Saturday: Marlies 2 - Crunch 1

Kerby Rychel - Miro Aaltonen - Andreas Johnsson
Dmytro Timashov - Chris Mueller - Kasperi Kapanen
Colin Greening - Frederik Gauthier - Ben Smith
Trevor Moore - Adam Brooks - Jeremy Bracco

Travis Dermott - Vincent LoVerde
Rinat Valiev - Justin Holl
Andrew Nielsen - Calle Rosen

Garret Sparks

Scratches: Paliotta, Clune, Marincin, Liljegren (injury), Marchment (suspension)

Kasperi Kapanen clearly drove the offence in this game, though it took a while to get going given two early penalties. Perhaps it’s simply bad luck, but you have to ask Dermott at this point what’s going on that he leads the team in PIM by a huge margin, without any fights, and by taking at least one penalty every game this season. Sure, the Marlies are winning, and the PK does its job well, but it sure doesn’t help to have him in the box every single game. Syracuse picked up the first goal on the power play.

Andreas Johnsson opened up the scoring for the Marlies, getting his seventh of the season on a powerplay.

The Marlies went on the power play again when ex-Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe took a slashing penalty. Kapanen took advantage with this fantastic shot.

And... that was it for goals. There were no more through the rest of the game, though not from a lack of trying by either team. The Marlies even had one more “goal” though was waived off. It turns out it was a bad read by the goal judge who turned on the red light even though the puck didn’t actually go in the net.

Neither side seemed to be able to maintain possession for long periods. There was a huge number of neutral zone turnovers that led to either another turnover, or a puck dumped in for a line change. Some notable scoring chances were set up by and came from Gauthier. The Goat looked really good.

Also great for the Marlies was some hard work keeping up pressure by the Bracco line. It would not be the first time I would see some great work by him on the weekend.

Of course, the win wouldn’t be possible without the fantastic play with Garret Sparks. It’s become a bit of a running gag that Sparks has said something along the lines of “I’m in the best shape of my life right now.” at every single post-game press conference for the past two seasons, but he says it now with a kind of sincerity and confidence that matches what he shows on the ice. He really does look extremely fit, and he moves faster than I have ever remembered.

Valiev took a penalty in the third period, but the game quickly went to four-on-four after a bizarre play by Domingue. You recall I mentioned he loves to play the puck? Well, he went behind the net to grab it, with Kapanen swinging up and around in pursuit. At that point you expect the goalie to shoot the puck away from the opposing player, except, Domingue didn’t do that. He didn’t do anything.

He just... stood there.

It was like he was frozen, staring at Kapanen getting closer and closer and closer... and then... BAM. Domingue tried to to play the puck off from Kapanen which got him a penalty for interference. “I don’t know what he was thinking” said Kapanen after the game. “That’s my role on the PK. They want me to go down and give pressure.” It certainly worked against Domingue.

The Crunch’s Dennis Yan gifted the Marlies a four-minute power play as the game drew to a close. While they didn’t convert, they wound down the clock and won a close game against a long-time rival, giving them some nice momentum heading into Sunday.

Sunday: Marlies 3 - Crunch 1

Andreas Johnsson - Miro Aaltonen - Kasperi Kapanen
Dmytro Timashov - Chris Mueller - Trevor Moore
Kerby Rychel - Frederik Gauthier - Ben Smith
Colin Greening - Adam Brooks - Jeremy Bracco

Travis Dermott - Vincent LoVerde
Andrew Nielsen - Calle Rosen
Martin Marincin - Justin Holl

Calvin Pickard

Scratches: Paliotta, Clune, Valiev, Liljegren (injury), Marchment (suspension)

The most interesting part of this game was how the Marlies scored a short-handed goal, but no power-play goals. This was not good considering the Crunch took five minor penalties in the first period alone.

Keefe has talked about issues with the power play extensively, and, after winning the game with power play goals Saturday, noted they had returned. “We just didn’t execute. That’s been a theme here for us. Obviously power play wins us the game yesterday with two goals, but we know that’s an area we’ve got to continue to pay attention to.“

The defence found the net for the first goal of the game.

Syracuse tied up the game, and you could see things starting to get a bit testy. The Crunch didn’t want to lose their third straight game of the season to the Marlies. Rychel and Daniel Walcott came quite close to mixing it up

The period ended with some great sustained pressure by the Marlies fourth line. Bracco had another great shift, playing the front of the net role. He’s small, but he’s tough. He reminded me a wee bit of Zach Hyman when he played for the Marlies and how he was the front of the net guy always trying to bang pucks in the net from in close.

Credit also goes to Calle Rosen who had several great individual efforts to advance the puck and carry it in to the attacking zone. He embarrassed local boy Cory Conacher hard in the second period.

Bracco followed the goal up with another scoring chance of his own, coming achingly close again to that first goal he has been looking for. Brooks is still looking for his first goal of the season too, but he didn’t look close to making it happen this weekend. Dermott is also looking for his first, and came close with a shot from the blue line which had an odd bounce to it, dribbling through traffic all the way to Domingue, who turned it away despite some surprise at it showing up in front of him.

Aaltonen had a great effort in the third period, but was unfortunately thrown into the penalty box for a face-off violation penalty. Pickard made a big save on the penalty kill to hold the lead.

The Crunch pulled Domingue to attempt to tie up the game, but Ben Smith picked off the puck on a bad Crunch breakout and put it back into the empty net, padding his already impressive stats, which now sit at 9 goals in 16 games this season.

Final thoughts and what’s next

With 26 points, the Marlies now sit at the top of the entire AHL, though they trail the W-B/S Penguins on a points percentage basis.

Timothy Liljegren has been out with an injury since November 4, but is nearing a return to the team. “He skated pretty much every day this week on his own, and what I’m told is he’s going to be gearing towards joining us in practice this week.“ said Keefe about his status. “It’s a positive step to get him back in the lineup.” A decision will have to be made soon by Liljegren and the team on whether he will be loaned to the Swedish national team for the World Junior Championships, which take place in Buffalo this year.

We may see Liljegren in a game by the weekend, but, first, the Marlies play the Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks) in a rare Wednesday night game. On the weekend they have their first ever matches against the new Belleville Senators in back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday.

Don’t forget that Saturday’s game is at the Air Canada Centre, and we will have our site meetup. I’m looking forward to seeing and meeting so many of you. There’s a still a ticket left in our row. Let me know if you would like to join us!