Marlies’ depth able to overcome off nights from Sparks, Johnsson

Garret Sparks of the AHL's Toronto Marlies. (Christian Bonin/Toronto Marlies)

TORONTO – A win over the Texas Stars was good enough news for Sheldon Keefe and the Toronto Marlies.

Considering the team’s scoring leader – and his linemates – failed to factor in any of the six goals, and the league’s top goaltender surrendered five, there’s reason to think things will only get better.

"The fact that some of our best people weren’t very good and we’re up 1-0 in the Calder Cup Finals is a great sign for us," Keefe, the Marlies coach, said.

The Marlies pushed their playoff winning streak to 10 games with a 6-5 win in the opener of the AHL’s championship series on Saturday.

They did so with little or no contributions from winger Andreas Johnsson and goaltender Garret Sparks – one player who ended the season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and another who expects to be there next year.

That will probably have to change in Game 2, which goes Sunday afternoon.

"Not pressure. It’s just for ourselves," Johnsson said. "You feel like you play a bad game (so) it’s good it’s a back-to-back now. We can come back and show we can play much better."

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Johnsson is a player Keefe said on Friday had been "dominant" in these playoffs. Since his return from the big club, the Swedish forward had produced 15 points in nine games – all wins.

But he and linemates Miro Aaltonen and Carl Grundstrom – who’d each produced 10 points in the post-season – were ineffective most of Game 1. Johnsson was passed by Curtis McKenzie in the scoring race after a two-point night from the Texas captain.

Johnsson took a lazy tripping penalty in the first period. He also made a terrible turnover on an early third-period power play, which led to a breakaway for McKenzie.

Keefe felt like the trio was checked tighter than they’d been at any point in the playoffs and didn’t react well.

"That line’s really had a lot of success coming through the neutral zone," he said. "The game today challenged them to adjust a little bit. I thought they failed to do that. Their execution was just off.

"Going around the room talking to each guy, all three of those guys were well aware that they weren’t very good."

Johnsson started to show some signs of life in the third period, but he failed to connect on a pass from Chris Mueller that would have resulted in a sure goal on a 2-on-1.

It was only the second time in 10 playoff games he was held pointless.

"We didn’t put the puck in the right spots for us to come in with speed and to have heavy shifts," Johnsson said. "We felt we had energy. We just didn’t get the puck where we wanted.

"We got better in the third, but overall we have to have a better game."


The good news is the Marlies have plenty of offensive depth. They had three other players in double digits for points entering the final.

They all factored prominently in the offence.

Mueller had three points, including a goal with 15 seconds left in the second period that pulled the Marlies within one before the break. That marker came after captain Ben Smith – another double-digit contributor – threw the puck on net from the corner.

Mueller set up the winning goal from Travis Moore midway through the third on a Toronto power play. Dmytro Timashov also joined the club after a two-assist night bumped his total to 11 points.

"It’s a sign of where we’re at as a team. We’re playing in this series for a reason and that’s because of our depth," Keefe said.

"We gave up six goals. I’m not worried about shutting down the big line," Stars coach Derek Laxdal said. "I’m worried about shutting down all four."

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The offensive showing made up for a porous defensive effort.

It wasn’t a banner performance in net for Sparks either.

Saturday’s game represented the first time since Game 4 of the opening round that he allowed more than four goals.

He wasn’t solely to blame. The Marlies were sloppy defensively for much of the night. Smith said Sparks was hung out to dry.

Sparks was also full marks for a breakaway save after the Johnsson turnover, which prevented McKenzie from scoring his second goal of the game.

Instead of Texas going up by two, Mason Marchment tied the score once the Marlies reached the other end of the ice.

"I’m sure he doesn’t want to let five in and wants some of those back," Keefe said. "I thought there were key saves at big times.

"He’s another guy I expect to be a whole lot better tomorrow."

Sparks, the Aldege Bastien Memorial Award winner as the AHL’s top netminder, knows there’s room for improvement, too.

Given the outcome of Saturday’s game, however, he’s less concerned than he otherwise would have been.

"Coming into this game, all I cared about was getting a win. I’d say that’s still the same," Sparks said. "As far as that goes, I’m happy with the result.

"But I think if you go around the room and ask guy to guy, we’ve got more. We’ll be better tomorrow."

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