March 9, 2015
TORONTO- A shot at a fourth straight North Division title went away early in the season for the Toronto Marlies. A spot in the post-season, however, is still very much a possibility.
The Marlies found themselves 10 points back of Texas for the final playoff position in the Western Conference after a 3-1 loss to the Stars on Feb. 21. Since then, Toronto has won five-of-six outings and have moved within one point of a post-season berth.
“We’re still in a playoff fight and we have goals in reach,” said Marlies head coach Gord Dineen.
The Marlies have 18 regular-season game remaining and six of those are against teams they are fighting with to get into the playoffs.
The task won’t be easy, although AHL clubs had to have their playoff rosters set the same day as the NHL trade deadline, so at least Dineen knows what he has to work with.
“I’m really comfortable with the group we have, great mix of veterans some real enthusiastic young players,” said Dineen. “We got some solid checkers and guys who can put the puck in the net.”
The only player who could have joined the Marlies for the post-season but won’t is forward Brandon Kozun. Because he wasn’t sent down before the March 2 deadline, he will remain with the Maple Leafs and is ineligible for the AHL post-season. Trevor Smith is also unavailable, but with Troy Bodie being given the captaincy two weeks ago it was clear Smith was never returning after spending majority of the season with the Leafs.
Defenceman Tom Nilsson has been sidelined with an upper-body injury for the past four weeks, but has joined the team in practice and could return to the lineup soon. Forward Tyler Biggs, though, was injured Friday in a 5-3 win against the Adirondack Flames and a timeline for his return isn’t known. Biggs looked to have tweaked his left leg on a play and is listed with a lower-body injury.
“He’s going to be out for a while,” said Dineen. “We’ll have to see what happens after he’s seen further medically.”
Forward Brad Ross, who was handed a 20-game suspension in December for failing a drug test, is back with the club. It’s unclear what the plan is for his future with the organization at this point in time, but the timing of the injury to Biggs worked in his favour as he suited up Sunday in a 2-1 win against the Utica Comets.
“I thought he was good, we put him in a prominent role,” said Dineen. “We know with Ross there’s always energy. Certainly being gone for that long he was excited to be back.”
Dineen has rotated his two prospect goaltenders all season, never once confirming either as the club’s starter. Right now that won’t change, but it could be Christopher Gibson for the post-season over Antoine Bibeau.
While the two put up almost identical numbers through their first 20 starts, Gibson has maintained his consistency and is 7-1-0 with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage in his last eight games. Bibeau, meanwhile, has lost six of his last eight starts with a 3.34 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage.
“He’s the ultimate professional, everyday he’s engaged, practises off ice and is doing everything he can to be a better goaltender,” Dineen said about Gibson. “He does everything you want.”
If the Marlies fail to qualify for the playoffs, special teams can be blamed. The power play is dead-least in the league and has produced just 23 goals. When you factor in eight short-handed goals against, the club is only plus-15 when playing up a man in 58 games this season. And the penalty kill has allowed at least one goal in each of their last 11 games and has dropped to 28th in the AHL.
To try and improve the power play, Toronto acquired defenceman T.J. Brennan from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Spencer Abbott. The move hasn’t paid off through Brennan’s first five games as the veteran has just one assist while the power play has gone 1 for 24 with him in the lineup.
“Both teams saw a need at different positions and we needed more offence from our defence— certainly on the power play,” said Dineen.
“Spencer hadn’t produced like he had last year for us, so I think a change of scenery was good for him.
The Marlies host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms Wednesday before two important weekend games against the Flames and Hamilton Bulldogs— two of the clubs sitting ahead of Toronto in the standings.
Hamilton is seventh in the West with 65 points, Texas is eighth with 64, while Adirondack and the Chicago Wolves are tied with the Marlies at 63 points— although each club has a game in hand on Toronto.