TORONTO– Will Acton may be focused on playing two-way, defensive style hockey. However, he is starting to emerge as one of the Toronto Marlies go-to scorers in the playoffs.
The 24-year-old centre has predominantly spent his two seasons with the Marlies as a fourth-line penalty killer, grinding out every shift with the hope of soon turning his AHL contract into an NHL two-way deal. But, recently, he has found an offensive side to his game when it matters most.
Acton scored the eventual game winner in Game 5 to bring the Marlies within a game of tying the Western Conference semi-final at three games apiece with the Grand Rapids Griffins. It was his third game-winning goal of the Calder Cup playoffs to go along with two assists in eight games played.
“Willy knows he has to play (simple),” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. “We want Willy to play a real simple game, and he’s done that. We always know he’s always going to fore check hard, back pressure hard, block shots, and kill penalties. We just want to make sure he keeps that simple part of his game because he’s going to get rewarded. His offence is going to come differently than how Joe Colborne or a Nazem Kadri creates offence. We want his offence to come how Ryan Hamilton creates it, simple hard plays.”
“When you say be a simple hockey player some people take it as you can’t do anymore,” said Acton “But I think simple is a good thing. It makes it easier for my teammates and me when we know what’s going on.”
In Game 5 Acton also set up Spencer Abbott, who finished the game with a goal and two assists. Abbott returned to the lineup for Game 4 after missing the first three games of the series with an undisclosed injury and his return adds extra skill to the right wing.
“He’s an interesting kid,” Eakins said about Abbott. “He’ll go a couple shifts without you maybe noticing him and then he makes something happen. He’s got great confidence for a first-year guy and he’s a big part of our group right now. He’s a guy that can go over the boards and create on his own.”
Eakins has done some major line shuffling through the series with the Griffins, looking for any sort of chemistry that can get his club going offensively. Game 5 had prospect Tyler Biggs dress for the first time in the post season while the return of Ryan Hamilton and Joe Colborne has pushed other players down the depth chart.
“Up until the last game we were looking for the right mix, we kept trying different ingredients and it just didn’t taste right,” said Eakins. “Last game I think we almost found the right mix. We may tweak it once more but we’ll talk about that today.”
One of the Marlies struggling the most right now with production is veteran Tim Connolly.
Connolly was sat for Game’s 4 and 5, however Eakins wouldn’t make it clear if it was because of injury or poor play.
The 32-year-old hasn’t scored since Feb. 18th, a span of 24 games played, and he has also missed chunks of time with a hip injury. Regardless of Connolly’s lack of scoring, Eakins isn’t overly stressed with the situation. But it is unclear if Connolly will be back in the lineup for Game 6.
“If he wasn’t getting his chances offensively, then I’d be worried,” said Eakins. “He has had numerous chances they just haven’t gone in for him. If there were no chances at all, we’d pull the plug. Timmy’s been battling through so much right from the start of the year. Most people would have just shut it down and said, ‘that’s enough.’ He refuses to do that.
“He’s trying to get healthy. I commend his courage and his effort to stay in the lineup. But right now we’re walking a tight rope of if he’s in or not.”
On Monday Eakins ran his group through a 60-minute practice with the main focus being special teams. In Game 5 the Marlies were successful on both sides, going 2 for 7 on the power play while killing off all five Griffins’ chances with the man advantage.
Game 6 against the Griffins is Tuesday in Toronto.