All Aboard the Andreas Johnsson Express, Next Stop: Calder Cup

Toronto (6) Texas (1) Final

By: Gordon Brown

Friday, June 15, 2018

Turning the Page

Championships, hockey, and the City of Toronto and have not gone hand-in-hand for quite some time, however, it appears the fortunes of a metropolis starved for greatness is in the midst of a drastic culture shock.

After failing to convert on their first opportunity to clinch a championship title in Game 6 of the Finals, the Marlies regrouped less than 48-hours later for a highly-anticipated seventh and deciding game on home ice. Texas entered the night fresh off of a decisive 5-2 victory, steering clear of elimination, and appeared to have taken a hold of the series' fluctuating momentum.

It happened to be the eleventh Game 7 in Calder Cup Finals history — and the first since 2003.

With the Calder Cup in the building on Thursday, it was more than expected that either team would be prepared for an all-out war to decide who would reign as the American Hockey League’s 2018 Playoff Champions.

Do or Die

For the seventh time in this series, the opposing teams were treated to a raucous sell-out crowd and would be in for one extremely deafening contest.

Travis Dermott was not made available to the lineup after returning from injury the previous game, leading us to believe he re-aggravated his lower-body issue. It turns out, Dermott took himself out of the lineup for the greater good of his team rather than try to push through the pain. Easily one of the most selfless decisions seen in recent history, in a championship Game 7 no-less.

This meant Andrew Nielsen would step into the lineup and assume defensive responsibility in his team’s biggest game of the year.

It came as no surprise that either team was prepared to lay everything out on the line for one another — but this was especially true on Thursday night. Shot blocking came in an abundance and that became increasingly clear as time progressed.

As the action got underway, there were chances aplenty at both ends of the ice but the closest would come in the Marlies zone early on. With Garret Sparks out of position and a seemingly empty cage to shoot on, Gavin Bayreuther was stoned cold by Miro Aaltonen’s game-altering shot block. Miro “The Hero” Aaltonen came to the rescue and sprawled across the crease to stop Bayreuther’s scoring opportunity, keeping it a scoreless affair.

The desperation save proved to be crucial, as Toronto turned around and notched the game’s ice-breaker several minutes later.

Andreas Johnsson went on to record his 9th tally of the post-season campaign and strengthened his grip on the playoff scoring lead in the process with his 22nd point, two more than second-ranked Curtis McKenzie. Luckily for Toronto, they managed to hold the talented point-producer off of the score sheet for the remainder of the night as well.

Just when you thought the Marlies were about to take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, everything changed. Well, not all that dramatically… But it changed.

With just 17.2 seconds remaining in the opening frame, Toronto managed to double their advantage on the back of Mason Marchment’s 5th playoff goal — which unequivocally proved to be the most important tally of his young career. It was a pleasant turn of events if you asked the home fans, who would have otherwise been happy with a 1-0 lead.

Momentum shifted back and forth during the second period, however, Texas believed they had trimmed Toronto’s lead down to a single goal, but upon further review, was determined that Garret Sparks had kept the goal-line protected and un-penetrated.

At this rate, Sparks is going to be personally liable for structural damages inside of Ricoh Coliseum... The arena literally shook every time he made a save, and he came through with several absolute beauties!

The game’s next tally came in the third courtesy of an incredible set-up by Andreas Johnsson, in order to set-up Carl Grundstrom’s 8th goal of the playoffs and a subsequent 3-0 lead. Johnsson’s poise saw him wait out several defenders and locate Grundstrom trailing at the opposite side of the zone, where he proceeded to beat McKenna with a clean one-timer — sending the home crowd into an absolute frenzy.

It was starting to get out of hand at this point. Johnsson absolutely threaded this needle like he was a one-man show, which is what this was truly starting to look like.

Fans could almost sense the presence of the Calder Cup making its way to ice level... Despite the excitement, this franchise knows all too well that no lead is safe. Ever. Enter, Austin Fyten, who subsequently took it upon himself to get his Stars on the board with a strike at the midway point of the frame.

Upon jumbotron replay, fans rabidly voiced their displeasure after seeing the puck clearly stay out as a result of Sparks stretching out to make the stop, however, it was determined that Texas can thank the referees being gifted a free goal. In the playoffs. Of the Calder Cup Finals. Game 7.

Totally fine, alright. For what it’s worth, the replay decision meant very little to the Marlies in the grand scheme of the night.

Closing Time

In the final minutes of regulation time, Toronto fired back with back-to-back goals in the span of 1:36 to effectively end any speculation of a Stars’ comeback. Andreas Johnsson and Ben Smith each scored, respectively, to put the score out of reach at 5-1 before prepping for what would be an unforgettable celebration.

Before that could begin, there was a matter of time to be dealt with and the Marlies did themselves no favours by adding another tally, this time into an empty cage, just to slow things down.

Mason Marchment would take credit for that one, on top of what turned out to be the game-winning goal which he recorded in the opening period — easily the most important goal of his career. 

When it was all said and done, gloves, sticks, helmets, not to mention confetti, and other debris were scattered across the ice, with a flurry of blue sweaters storming the crease to celebrate their elaborate Calder Cup victory with the man who backstopped them for 19 playoff games and allowed just a single goal against in the winner-take-all Game 7.

Key Cogs in the Machine

The Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Most Valuable Player of the Calder Cup Playoffs had to be a toss-up between Garret Sparks and Andreas Johnsson but was ultimately awarded to Johnsson following a dominant Game 7 performance. This was highlighted by three-points of offensive output, his two goals and crucial assist proved to be the spark that ignited Toronto as a team. 

Although, Mike McKenna battled valiantly for Texas and could have warranted a case for the MVP award in his own right.

Garret Sparks really could not have been much better at the most critical moments, it truly is a shame he was robbed of a shutout as a result of an inexplicable decision made by referees upon the Fyten goal review. In fact, his 29-save performance should be enough to warrant some legitimate NHL speculation. If the Maple Leafs cannot utilize him, he could be a valuable asset for many other teams at the next level.

I have to think he would like to remain with the franchise if the situation is stable, but teams will be checking in on the commodity.

Foreshadowing: The Future of the Franchise

Not only is this a championship — but a sign of bigger things to come for the organization as a whole, with players continued development and eventual graduation to the Maple Leafs at the NHL-level.

Among the key contributors previously mentioned, Andreas Johnsson stands out as the most likely forward to land a full-time gig in the NHL next season. The 23-year-old Swede finished the regular season with and led all skaters in point production during the playoffs with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in just 16 games — a 1.50 points-per-game pace. His performance in Game 7 alone warranted this article's title.

While many ponder what the Leafs may do to shore up their back-end, few consider looking within the organization to find that help and much-needed stability. There just so happens to be a stockpile of reliable defencemen at the AHL-level, including the likes of Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, Justin Holl and Martin Marincin, just to name a few, but it still remains to be seen whether or not the franchise will seek external reinforcements or build from within. 

It goes without saying that Travis Dermott has all-but secured himself a spot on next year’s Maple Leafs roster with a brief, yet impressive showing at the end of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Furthermore, Toronto’s 2017 1st round, 17th overall pick, Timothy Liljegren, took big strides in his development and even set a record for the highest AHL regular season points-per-game pace (minimum 40 GP) by an 18-year-old rearguard, sporting a 0.39 PPG pace. He also added 4 assists in 20 playoff games which should bode well for the (now) 19-year-old’s growth, while also showing more physicality and confidence with the puck as of late.

I expect a breakout season for the talented young defender and soon-to-be power play specialist, come time for next year’s campaign. For those who think he should get a crack at the Maple Leafs, he certainly will, but will most likely be given the proper time to blossom in the AHL as originally anticipated. If anyone knows not to rush it, it must be Maple Leafs management.

Additionally, when it comes to goaltending, Garret Sparks should be considered for the backup role behind Frederik Andersen after being voted winner of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award, as the AHL’s most outstanding goaltender for the 2017-18 regular season. If not, his value is at an all-time high and the Leafs could be looking to cash in. 

He ran a 2.22 GAA and a .915 SV% to pair with a 14-5 record in the playoffs too, not exactly something you can overlook as an opponent or team executive. Considering the amount of games Andersen has been forced to play the past two seasons, why not bring up a promising young backup? Trust is not something Curtis McElhinney has warranted despite his above-average numbers last season.

With another pair of seasoned netminders in the system, Calvin Pickard (21-9-2, 2.31 GAA, .918 SV% reg. season) is particularly more than capable of carrying the load just as Sparks did this season. The flip side would also see Kasimir Kaskisuo (14-13-2, 2.33 GAA, .916 SV% (14-13-2, 2.33 GAA, .916 SV% regular season), who recently signed a two-year contract extension for next year, in competition for the crease after posting solid numbers while on loan with the Chicago Wolves this past season.

Ending Note

Leafs Nation should be excited for what the future holds, especially with Kyle Dubas at the helm of General Manager operations. He brought in a lot of the bright minds surrounding the Marlies, who in turn collaborated to form an impressive roster that can now officially claim the title of Calder Cup Champion. For whoever graduates to the next level, there is still a cupboard stocked with several promising prospects ready to step into the spotlight of a fearful lineup. 

Considering the NHL draft is on June 22nd and Toronto has five picks within the opening three rounds and ten picks overall, competition for roster spots on the Marlies again will be high once again next season. The Maple Leafs franchise is in good hands, congratulations go to the Toronto Marlies on a job well done! This will truly go down as a memorable run, and hopefully the first of many Calder Cups to come.

Personally, I’d sincerely love to thank each and every one of you for supporting my work and being with me every step of the way. This wouldn’t be possible without you! Stay tuned for more content throughout the week and into the Summer.

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E-mail - gordon@BarnBurner.ca 

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