In my last post I wrote about a Toronto Marlies team that, after their first five games, didn’t really seem to know where they were going this season. And after going 5-3 on their annual month-long road trip (the Royal Winter Fair takes over the Ricoh Coliseum every November) the Marlies still find themselves barely in a playoff spot and with some players still looking to find their way. It’s still very early in the season; Toronto has only played 13 of their 76 games, but teams like Grand Rapids and Abbotsford are making the most of the young season to jump ahead in their divisions. In this post, I’ll take a look at the different storylines that came from the 8 road games and offer a quick look at where Toronto is headed as they approach the end of the first quarter of the season.
1. Two Early Losses to the Abbotsford Heat
After opening the trip with a win against the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Marlies went out west to Abbotsford BC for two games against the Calgary Flames affiliate, a one of Toronto’s division rivals. The Heat have been on fire (pun intended) this season, and at the time Toronto came into town, they were 5-1 on the year. With two games back-to-back, Toronto had a chance to make gains on the Heat for first in the North division, but the Heat instead dominated Toronto and the Marlies left BC looking lost.
The first game saw the Heat win 3-0 and almost all of the key Marlies having minus ratings. It was a close game until the third period when the Heat scored two goals and an empty net, while the Marlies only registered 22 shots; not nearly enough to win a game. In the second game, Toronto scored twice, including the opening goal, but still lost 4-2. After getting ahead early, they allowed the next three goals and couldn’t come back from that. All in all, it was a bad way to start the trip because it allowed Abbotsford to widen their lead in the division and it showed Toronto that they have plenty of work left to do.
2. A Four Game Winning Streak
The trip wasn’t all bad for Toronto though. After leaving Abbotsford looking like a lost team, Toronto moved through the South division and won four games in a row. Players who had been quiet earlier, such as Carter Ashton and Keith Aucoin, suddenly had life again.
This streak opened with a 6-4 win over the Houston Aeros where Ashton had 2 goals including the winner and Ben Scrivens made 24 saves for the win. Houston has some good players, such as Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, but Toronto was able to out score those guys and get the win. The second win came against the Texas Stars, 3-0 with Jussi Rynnas getting his second shutout of the season. Leo Komarov continued to provide offence with two goals while Ryan Hamilton had the other. In their third game in three nights, the Marlies continued their tear through Texas by beating San Antonio Rampage 5-3. Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne both got their long overdue first goals of the season and Mark Owuya got his first win.
But the most satisfying win for the Marlies has to be against their fourth one, beating the Oklahoma City Oil Barrons 6-5 in overtime, the same Barrons teams that has Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz on their team. And it was Toronto’s own NHL player, Jake Gardiner who got the winner with 28 seconds left in overtime. Toronto blew a four goal lead in this game and Oklahoma City had all the momentum going into overtime, but Toronto wasn’t phased by the stacked roster and were able to win the game, and extend their winning streak to four games.
3. Splitting Games Against the Hamilton Bulldogs
The long trip began and ended in Hamilton with Toronto’s biggest rival hosting them in their third and fourth matchups of the young season. Toronto won the first game (and first of their road trip) 5-4 on an overtime goal from Simon Gysbers. The Bulldogs are a rebuilding team (like their parent Montreal) and always provide a tough opposition for Toronto. But with more experience, Toronto is usually expected to win. So when Hamilton came out firing on all cylinders a few weeks later, the Marlies were surprised and lost 6-3. This game broke the Marlies’ four game winning streak and showed that this rivalry will always be exciting. Toronto can’t expect easy points against their constant opponent just because they are rebuilding. It was a good learning experience for the Marlies and made for some exciting hockey.
Moving forward, the Marlies need to find a way to score goals. In their first game back from the road trip, the Marlies lit up the Bulldogs 6-1, with help from Nazem Kadri’s four assists and Keith Aucoin’s two goals. They also need to remain disciplined, with even goalie Ben Scrivens getting penalties in their game home game against Hamilton and Joe Colborne choosing to fight instead if score. The Marlies welcome Abbotsford into town on Sunday and then hit the road again for the rest of November. If they can beat the Heat this time, Toronto is poised to continue another winning streak. There is a lot of hockey left to be played this season and the Marlies still can come back and dominate this league the way they did last year.