It feels like a long time ago that I had felt Playoffs hockey, in fact it was only last year with the Toronto Marlies but this spring it felt like a totally clean and fresh page was being turned on the Leafs Organization. Cannot really explain it in words, but I know you all feel it too.
Walking into the Ricoh, for my pre-game meal, there was a palpable positive vibe in the air. The fans were ready to celebrate a sweep over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (I hate that name) based on the two fairly easy wins already in the series. As an aside, who do I share my pre-game meal with? Henny. We talk hockey, and life for a solid 15 minutes like we would see each other everyday. He is a true class act of the hockey world.
It was announced that Antoine Bibeau would start for the Marlies, and while most are confident in his abilities it was a surprise that Sparks wasn’t staring based on his shutout in the second game of the opening round and on the road. Former Marlies tender Chris Gibson gets the start at the other end of the rink. Many discuss before opening puck drop, ‘watch Gibson stand on his head and stop 40 tonite’.
Two great renditions of the anthem are belted out, and the Ricoh is jumping early on. It is clear the intention of the Sound Tigers is to intimidate early and often. Extra jabs in the yap box after whistles, sticks on the way to benches. And they were definitely finishing checks. I watched, to see the Marlies skill players back away from it all, but to my amazement they stood right in and delivered it back. Other than the Clune line (expected) guys like Josh Leivo, Connor Carrick, Brendan Leipsic all stepped into scrums with a lack of regard and basically took zero crap. That to me is the start of a wolfpack mentality and the organization desperately needs it.
With Bridgeport opening the scoring on a powerplay (Will.I.am in the box), it only took 4 minutes for the Marlies to answer. Connor Carrick scored on a Marlies powerplay and the building had its mojo back heading into the first intermission. Shot total in the first: 19-7 Marlies.
Life was good right? No so fast. The Sound Tigers scored three straight goals to start the second period. The Marlies had been dominating the play, buzzing around Gibson who continued to make massive stops, when the AHL officiating crew decided to make the game more interesting that it needed to be. THREE straight Marlies penalties led to those three goals and with a lead of 4-1, the home team was on the ropes.
After Bibeau gave up the 4th goal on his 12th shot (I believe 3 were re-directed immediately in front of him) , you could see Sparks grabbing his gear on the bench. It was time for a change in between the pipes.
Leafs season ticket holders, can attest to this. The feeling being down 4-1 with that much time left in the second period (and essentially half the game) isn’t really that daunting. Nobody likes being down 4-1, but many will say with the Marlies firepower….its not that bad.
At this point, I turn to Mike Augello and say “this will turn into a 6-4 game before its said and done”. Unsure who would end up winning, the feeling of comeback never left.
Three minutes later and a few Sparks saves that went directly back into the Team’s legs and energy, it was time for Defenceman of the Year, T.J. Brennan to step up. And that he did. Brennan blasted home a one-timer on the powerplay and at this point. It was on.
On the Brennan goal, Connor Carrick picked up his second point of the game but it was time for his show to begin. Carrick, who was added in the Winnik trade with Washington, has been interesting to watch. Smooth moving, solid shot, not afraid to throw his body around. Another two minutes advance off the clock and then Carrick scores his second of the game. Two minutes after that, the roof blows off the Ricoh as Carrick scores his hat trick goal and ties the game at 4 with less than a minute to go in the 2nd period.
Heading into the third period, the Marlies were leading in shots on goal 32-15. Gibson was putting on a performance as those shots on net, and the shots directed at the net had him earning his pay check. Wondering what would be the next turning point in the game, we didn’t have to wait long. Viktor Loov stepped up at the blueline and made a very solid hit in front of the Bridgeport bench, and as the play re-entered the zone, he then blasted home a shot that gave the Marlies the first lead of the game! If you followed all of those goals, the first five on the evening were ALL scored by the Marlies blueliners. Impressive considering the amount of offense up front on this team. Coach Keefe joked post game “yeah, I think we could handle getting that production each night from that group of guys”.
With the Ricoh in full swagger mode, and the Marlies now buzzing the Sound Tigers like vultures, Brendan Leipsic made a great series of moves to get the puck to Zach Hyman who tapped it into the yawning cage, to make the game 6-4 for the home team. Madhouse on Marlies Avenue was in full swing at this point.
Even tho their was 8 minutes left in the game, it never seemed that Bridgeport was going to sustain an attack if the Marlies just remained out of the box. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Ricoh faithful starting singing “Na,Na,Na, Hey Hey….Goodbye”. It wasn’t the best rendition, as they are out of practice, but it sure felt good.
Difference in atmosphere was night and day between Toronto and Bridgeport, as Keefe noted post game “that game finally had the feeling of a true playoffs game”. The fans deserve full marks for selling out the rink (even standing room), and making it a fun place for their home team to celebrate a three game sweep of Bridgeport, and now the Marlies move on to face Albany in the second round.
This will be a tough series, but fun to watch.
GO MARLIES GO !!!
Photo Creds: Christian Bonin. @ChrisTSGphoto