Onward and Upward
ABBOTSFORD, B.C.--The suits at MLSE may not know what to do with themselves.
After miserable seasons upon seasons in which the sports conglomerate has defined ineptitude on the ice, the pitch and the court, lo and behold Larry Tanenbaum and Co. have a winner on their hands.
They'd undoubtedly prefer it was the Maple Leafs or the Raptors. But for now, the AHL Toronto Marlies will have to do, and in many ways, they'll do very nicely indeed.
This is a hockey club chasing the Calder Cup that is loaded with both character and characters. The Marlies showed both and more Wednesday night, finishing off the Abbotsford Heat in five games by virtue of a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 5. The two teams split the first two games of the series at the Ricoh Centre, but then the Marlies came west to the Fraser Valley and roared to three straight wins and a berth in the AHL's Western Conference final.
Mike Zigomanis, the hockey vegan himself, got to be the hero in Game 5 against the Heat, winning a power play faceoff and then banging in Nazem Kadri's rebound to end the series at 9:02 of extra time. Zigomanis drew the penalty as well, a high-sticking minor on Hugh Jessiman, and the struggling Marlie power play finally clicked.
"They're a good team," said Zigomanis. "But our team just finds a way. Timely goaltending, timely goals. The nucleus of our team sticks together. This team adapts well to the situation."
After missing the playoffs the last two seasons under head coach Dallas Eakins, the Marlies are now 7-1 in the post-season this year after sweeping Rochester in the best-of-five opening round.
The Heat scored the first goal in four of the five games played, but only won one of those games. Again on Wednesday night, the Marlies fell behind, this time 2-0, but goals by Jake Gardiner and Matt Frattin tied the game by the end of the second period.
The benefits to this AHL playoff run could be numerous for the parent Maples, but surely the ability of Gardiner, Frattin and other youngsters like Kadri to experience playoff success after the disappointing end to the Leaf season has to mean something.
"The moment our season was over and I knew I was coming here, I was excited to have a second chance," said Gardiner. "Celebrating in that pile (after Zigomanis' goal) was a blast."
After Jessiman took his penalty preventing Zigomanis from cashing in a loose puck, Eakins immediately called a time out.
"I called that because I wanted Zigomanis to get a quick rest. I wanted to win that faceoff," he said.
The veteran centre drew the puck back to Kadri, who moved into the middle of the ice high in the Abbotsford zone and snapped a long shot at the Heat net. Zigomanis whacked in the rebound and the series was over.
"It was nice we had a cushion to work with, being up 3-1 in the series," said Zigomanis. "Maybe they were a little tighter than us in overtime."
The Marlies will now get a full week off before beginning the Western Conference final against either the San Antonio Rampage (affliate of the Florida Panthers) or the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton). Game 4 in that series goes Thursday night in Texas, with Oke City ahead two games to one.
If it's the Rampage, the series with start in Toronto, possibly at the Air Canada Centre because of a potential conflict at the Ricoh Centre. If it's the Barons, the series will start in Oklahoma.
The break should allow the Marlies to get some of their injured players back, including Carter Ashton (concussion), Joe Colborne (finger) and Jay Rosehill (hand).
Ben Scrivens stopped 29 shots in the final victory over Abbotsford and allowed only seven goals in five games with a dazzling .955 save percentage.