They played fast, they played smart. And thanks to a virtuoso performance by playoff MVP Andreas Johnsson, the Toronto Marlies hoisted the Calder Cup for the first time ever on Thursday night.
Johnsson had two goals and three points in the 6-1 victory, including the dagger - the fourth goal that wrested momentum back from the Texas Stars after a controversial marker midway through the third period broke Toronto’s shutout bid.
As game as the Stars were, the Marlies were simply too talented. Mike McKenna, so good for Texas in Game 6, couldn’t stop the Toronto barrage again, as he was peppered with 46 shots on the night. And while the Stars were the heavier, more experienced team, the Marlies weren’t deterred by their physical opponents, simply pushing through with their speed to constantly pressure Texas.
“It was trusting the way we play,” said captain Ben Smith. “We felt we were playing better or having more opportunities than them throughout the series and it was just a matter of limiting our mistakes. And it helped that ‘Sparky’ made some incredible saves in the second.”
Indeed, as dominant as Toronto was in the first period, the Marlies still had to fend off a hard counter-attack from Texas in the middle frame and that’s where AHL goalie of the year Garret Sparks made his presence felt. His best save came off a point-blank chance from defenseman Dillon Heatherington and vindicated the netminder’s performance in Game 6, which included a giveaway that led directly to a crucial Texas goal.
“I had a personal responsibility to bounce back,” Sparks said. “And I thought I did that.”
But Johnsson was the headline story for the Marlies. Coming back to the AHL once the Maple Leafs’ season ended in Boston, Johnsson took a team struggling to put away Utica in the first round and launched them into the stratosphere. After disposing of the Comets, Johnsson and the Marlies swept Syracuse and Lehigh Valley, winning 10 straight playoff games before Texas drew blood in Game 2 of the final.
Playing on a line with center Miro Aaltonen and right winger Carl Grundstrom, Johnsson used his speed and tenacity to cause turnovers, outrace defenders, and score crucial goals for the Marlies. Grundstrom was similarly dangerous and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of them in the NHL next year. For Johnsson, it’s practically inevitable.
“This was probably his last AHL game,” Smith said. “He’s such a talented player and we were lucky to get him back, because without him we might not have been here.”
Every championship is great news for an organization, but the most appealing thing for the Maple Leafs is how youngsters like Johnsson, Grundstrom and defenseman Travis Dermott (who missed Game 7 with a shoulder injury) played. All three are mobile and skilled, and the Maple Leafs have shown that they can be lethal when they use their speed. To get internal reinforcements for next season (and ones that come with low cap hits) is a great advantage, given how crazy the prices of veteran free agents can be in the summer.
The man perhaps most aware of that is new Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, who built this Marlies team at his previous post of Leafs assistant GM/Marlies GM. Dubas was clearly over the moon with the victory and it’s obvious why: this was a statement title for a young executive whose teams had never gone to the top of the mountain before. And he did it with coach Sheldon Keefe, who followed Dubas from the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Now that Dubas is in charge of the NHL club, it will be interesting to see how many Marlies can graduate in the fall. Along with Johnsson, Grundstrom and Dermott, it’s hard not to see defensemen Justin Holl and Calle Rosen getting a longer look, too.
Toronto washed over Texas for most of the game, using a blueprint that has also proven to be effective in the NHL by teams such as Pittsburgh and Vegas. Game 6 was a letdown for the Marlies, but the pressure didn’t get to them for the final contest.
“It was frustrating because we thought it was a winnable game,” Holl said. “We knew had to refocus and come back. But it’s not all bad: Game 7 is more dramatic and makes it a little more fun.”