Road trips are meant to be tough. You’re moving around from city to city, never quite feeling like you’re at home, and never having time to stop and rest. When you’re not squeezing yourself into equipment, you’re squeezing yourself into a bus. It’s two-to-three weeks of departure from the norm, all while opposing arena’s cheer against you.
These stretches are the ones that make home ice advantage all the more useful. You’re not there to lose, but you expect that it’ll be harder to win than at home, where you’re supposed to stockpile points.
The Toronto Marlies apparently didn’t get the memo explaining this. Last night’s 1-0 victory of Rochester sealed off their best November road trip in history.
Since we didn’t have a proper post-game for last night’s game against the Rochester Americans, here’s a super quick rundown: nobody scored for sixty minutes. Garret Sparks and Andrey Makarov both stood on their heads, with Makarov seeing most of the rubber. Penalties were hard to come by for a while, but as the teams began to get hungrier for goals, stick infractions became commonplace though neither team was overly successful with them.
Until overtime, that is. Phil Varone was sent off for a hook in the dying seconds of the third, and with ten seconds left in the 4-on-3 powerplay, the Marlies finally capitalized. It came off a weird bounce, as shutout breakers tend to do; Mark Arcobello tried to feed the puck to William Nylander in front of the net, but it bounced off the teenaged phenom. Brandon Leipsic was right in the landing zone, though, and he buried his second of the season to seal the deal.
An Annual Tradition
The Marlies go on extended road trips every season around this time of year. I’d love to tell you that there’s some grand historical significance that inspires this pilgrimage into the rest of the AHL’s barns, and there sort of is, but it has nothing to do with hockey.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is an annual event in Toronto that’s existed for 93 years. It’s basically the Ex of the fall/winter, crazy junk meals and all. The only difference? It takes place inside of the Exhibition’s buildings, and instead of rides, there’s a ton of animals. I went this year to see what the fuss was; I had an intense staring match with a llama and a cow enjoyed being petted so much that she rolled over onto the ground. It was adorable. Anyway, Ricoh Coliseum is part of the grounds and the surface that we know as ice becomes something a bit more horse-friendly for two weeks, leaving the Marlies without a home.
This is also why attendance is so low in October; the team isn’t aggressive about marketing their first few home games beyond the home opener and doubles down once the team comes back.
With all of this considered, I looked back into the history books. The Marlies have done this trip eleven times now; the shortest being a nine-day disappearance in 2006/07, and the longest being 22 days in 2011/12. Typically, you’re looking at two and a half weeks; it’s been seven years since a trip has been under two weeks.
Toronto finished this trip with a 6-0-1 record. It’s the first time they’ve picked up a point in every game, and ties 2010/11 for most games won despite that team playing three additional games. Their 31 goals for ranks second in total and is the highest per-game they’ve scored by a considerable margin. Their 18 goals against is the 4th-lowest, and second lowest by GAA.
Overall, the team finished with a 0.929 points percentage; well exceeding the 2007/08 record of 0.786. Their goal differential of +13 and Goals-For percentage of 63.3% are second only to the 2010/11 roster.
The team, on the whole, has been fantastic this entire season; it’s hard to find a weak link at the moment. But a few players in particular have stuck out as top performers over the course of these sixteen days.
The Marlies might have the best line in the league right now in Josh Leivo, William Nylander, and Richard Panik. There’s a lot to like from that trio stylistically; Leivo forechecks and goes towards the net like a more famous JL in the organization, Panik is a fantastic playmaker and Nylander creates offensive opportunities out of thin air.
Boy, have they ever clicked. Nylander is obviously the crown jewel of the bunch; he finished the trip with a team-leading nine assists, and twelve shots. That’s over three shots on goal per game and 1.7 points per appearance. The others weren’t slouches either, though, as Panik picked up two goals and four assists and Leivo was a point per game with an additional assist.
Mark Arcobello clearly has something that allows him to dominate the AHL, even if he’s unable to do the same in the big show. Like Nylander, he had at least one of his 11 points in every game he played in, and lead the team with six goals and 23 shots. Going back to his time with Oklahoma City, he’s on a 22 AHL Game point streak, which is absurd.
Garret Sparks has been fantastic between the pipes. I’ve been hyping him up for a while now as a goalie who could potentially continue to vastly exceed low expectations attached to him, and this year he’s been doing more of that. Sparks started in five games on this trip and came in to relieve Antoine Bibeau in the 9-8 extravaganza in St. John’s. He had shutouts in both his first and last games and had a trip-long save percentage of 0.949. He was named the AHL’s player of the week in the first week. Over the past fifteen months, Sparks has gone from the team’s starter apparent, to their third youth option, to regaining his spot on the totem pole, though in much better physical and mental shape this time. It’s a heck of a story.
Speaking of players that have been through the ups and downs in the organization, how about TJ Brennan? He straight up left, came back, and continues to be the straw that stirs the drink on the point. He picked up 21 shots in 7 games, four of which went into the back of the net to go with two helpers. It’s been interesting seeing Brennan’s role change from the key cog in the team’s offence to the zone entry and first shot extraordinaire that pushes his forwards into position, but at the team level, that might be even more valuable.
A variety of other players looked very solid over the course of the trip, even if they weren’t overly obvious. Casey Bailey and Zach Hyman are starting to find their grooves, each picking up four points. Nikita Soshnikov went cold, but still averaged nearly three shots per game. Sam Carrick picked up three points in four games and looked even better than he did before his suspension.
Beyond being able to brag about surviving losing their home to Cows, Horses, and Llamas better than other Marlies team before them, the team has put themselves in a very advantageous position moving ahead. Toronto now leads the AHL in total points, though this year’s weird division layout means that the playoffs will be decided by points percentage, where they actually find themselves ranked third to Wilkes-Barre and San Antonio.
Even still, their 0.781 is nothing to scoff at. It’s safe to assume that a percentage of about 0.570 will get you into the AHL playoffs, meaning the Marlies will need about 87 points through 76 games to clinch a playoff spot. They’re already at 25 in 16 games, meaning they could likely go 0.433 (26-34 or equivalent) for the rest of the year and pick up a spot.
With 32 of the remaining 60 games being on home ice, that shouldn’t be hard. It also shouldn’t be the goal; with this much of a head start, the Marlies are probably thinking “1st overall” more than they are “8th in the west”. As they should be.
Photo via Facebook / Utica Comets