TORONTO, ONT. – A game seven is exciting enough as is, but Thursday night in Toronto a championship was on the line as well. The 2018 Calder Cup Final was still even after six games, so the Toronto Marlies and Texas Stars got together for a seventh.
A victory for the Stars would mean the club’s second Calder Cup, having defeated the St. John’s IceCaps in 2014 to claim the crown. Meanwhile, for the Marlies, a win would mean the first pro hockey championship for the city of Toronto since the Maple Leafs brought home the Stanley Cup in 1967.
The Marlies already had one chance to raise the Cup in game six inside Ricoh Coliseum, but the resilient Stars took control with three second period goals en route to a 5-2 win to even the series. Toronto dominated the first period in game six, but Texas goalie Mike McKenna was able to keep it scoreless until his side could respond. The Marlies owned the opening frame once again on Thursday, but this time the result was different.
The Stars nearly grabbed momentum themselves 3:00 in, as a Marlies turnover led to contest’s first scoring chance. Jason Dickinson forced the turnover just inside the Toronto zone, knocking the puck over to Colin Markison. Markison spun and wired a pass to Sheldon Dries flying free through the slot. Dries released a quick wrister from in tight past the blocker of Garret Sparks, but rubber hit iron and the threat dissipated. The Marlies began to take over after that, and it wouldn’t be long before they drew first blood.
The opening tally came just past the midpoint of period one after Toronto dumped it deep then forced a Texas turnover. Andreas Johnsson swooped in from behind and knocked the puck off the stick of Roope Hintz, and onto the tape of Miro Aaltonen. Aaltonen immediately gave the puck to Johnsson, who cut between two Texas defenders and wired a low shot that hit the skate of Carl Grundstrom in front. Grundstrom then grabbed the puck and wired it into the slot just in front of Johnsson, who was able to stretch out and direct the puck into the net before falling to the ice. It was a pretty goal to behold, and it gave Toronto a 1-0 lead 10:41 into the first.
Toronto continued to pepper McKenna for the remainder of the frame, outshooting Texas 19-7 in the first, and 17 seconds before intermission they doubled the lead. It was another one for the highlight reel, as Trevor Moore carried the puck in on the rush then dropped it to Chris Mueller while cutting to the far circle. Mueller immediately returned the pass to Moore, who then found the trailing Mason Marchment open in the slot. Marchment fired a one-time blast into the back of the net to give the hosts a 2-0 advantage after 20 minutes.
The second period was a much more even affair, with shots finishing just 11-9 Toronto in the frame. The Stars seemed determined to get the next goal and get back in the game and nearly did so on two occasions. The first chance came 7:35 into the frame, as Joel L’Esperance sliced through the zone and released a low slapper that Sparks kicked right to Dillon Heatherington. Heatherington was staring at a yawning cage in which to deposit a shot, but gripped his stick a little tight and fired the biscuit harmlessly wide.
Then, two minutes later, the Stars came even closer when Austin Fyten picked up the puck in the slot before pulling it to his backhand and wrapping it around Sparks. A scramble then ensued as the puck hit the post and nearly crossed the line, but a Toronto defender helped slow it down, and Sparks was able to stretch back to smother it before it could go in. The officials confirmed the call upon review, and Toronto still led 2-0 when the horn sounded to end the middle stanza
The final frame started well for the Marlies, as just 3:35 in they extended their cushion to 3-0. The Toronto forecheck was strong all night, this time forcing John Nyberg to rush a clearing attempt that was easily swatted back into the zone by Johnsson. Grundstrom picked it up and returned it to Johnsson before cutting to the far post. Johnsson stopped below the near circle and turned to survey his options, then whipped a backdoor feed to Grundstrom who tickled the twine to make it 3-0 Marlies.
Toronto seemed to have smooth sailing ahead, but with nine minutes to play a controversial call would suddenly give Texas life. Matt Mangene sent a pass to Brian Flynn in the corner, who immediately fired a shot-pass into the slot that deflected off Fyten at the far post. Sparks made the save, but Fyten was able to jam a second and third effort that Sparks also appeared to stop before Mangene flew it for two more cracks before the whistle blew. To be honest, I still haven’t seen where the puck crossed the line during the scramble, but after review, a goal was awarded to Fyten to make it 3-1 with 8:59 still to play.
The Stars were unable to build upon the fortunate call, however, and with just 3:46 to play the Marlies put it away. It was Johnsson potting his second goal of the game, as the league’s top postseason scorer came through in the clutch once again. It came off a three-on-one, as he patiently carried it in as he looked for the best option, then at the last moment faked a pass and lifted a shot over McKenna and in to send the crowd into a frenzy.
The scoring was not done yet, though, as the Marlies would add two more goals during the celebratory final few minutes. The first came with the Texas net empty for the extra man, as Ben Smith sent a shot from the neutral zone into the yawning cage to make it 5-1 with 2:10 to play. Then with 55 seconds on the clock, Marchment added his second of the night with a quick turnaround shot from the top of the slot to provide the final score of 6-1.
As the clock expired, the Marlies flooded the ice in a heap of happy humans, having forever earned the right to be called Calder Cup champions. They were the best team all year, with 112 points in the regular season, and proved their claim with an exclamation point at the end. A sold-out Ricoh Coliseum and the city of Toronto as a whole celebrated with them, having finally quenched their thirst for a cup after a 51-year drought. Johnsson was awarded MVP for his stellar playoff run, ending with ten goals and 24 points.
For Texas, the season comes to an end one win shy of the final goal. The Stars left everything on the ice and were devastated by the loss, but as the pain fades, the realization of their accomplishments will set it. This group of Stars fought hard all year, scratching and clawing their way all the way to a Western Conference title and game seven of the Calder Cup Final.
The AHL could not have asked for a better series to close the year, as the Marlies and Stars traded wins throughout the series and sent the 2018 Calder Cup Final into the history books as a seven-game thriller.
Now comes the offseason, as another year comes to a close. Stay with The Sin Bin for all the minor league news from the offseason, you can follow us on Twitter @SinBinStars for your Texas info and @SinBinNews for all the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL news and notes. You can also download The Sin Bin app.