It’s every team’s objective to win their last game of the season.
Only one of the AHL’s sixteen playoff teams will achieve that goal, and the Marlies won’t be one of them.
With his team eliminated after a 3-2 loss Sunday at the hands of the Hershey Bears, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe is left to impart a silver lining upon his players: the intangible, albeit painful, experience of losing is a necessary step in learning how to win.
“Not everybody gets to win, so when you don’t win, you need to make sure that you find value in what you’ve been through,” Keefe said following the Sunday afternoon outing played before a near sellout crowd at Ricoh Coliseum. “Our players grew a lot going through this.”
The Bears vaulted to a 3-0 lead on the strength of goals by Liam O’Brien, Christian Djoos and Nathan Walker.
Just before the midway mark of the second period, William Nylander got the Marlies on the board, deflecting Connor Carrick’s point shot for his seventh goal of the playoffs. Then at 5:11 of the third frame, Nikita Soshnikov buried a loose puck in the crease area to bring Toronto to within a goal.
But, the bid for the equalizer fell short.
“We dug ourselves too big a hole in this series, too big a hole in this game. Just too far to come back when you’re playing against a good team,” Keefe said.
And thus, the Marlies – the Macgregror Kilpatrick trophy winners as the AHL regular season champion – are on the outside looking in, while Hersey faces Lake Erie in the Calder Cup final series.
However, Keefe took note of the efforts put forth by the young Leafs prospects who will be vying for roster spots with the big club at training camp.
On Nylander, who Keefe had called out in the previous round versus Albany, the coach praised the player who scored four of the Marlies’ final seven goals, over two games.
“There’s still things (Nylander) needs to do that he can do better, like all these players,” Keefe said. “But you can’t help but like his response. In a critical time, when his team needed him the most – to extend our season, he was great.
He really showed that he’s ready to take more responsibility as a young player. I come out of this with a really positive feeling for William Nylander and his growth.”
Kasperi Kapanen was in the lineup despite taking a nasty elbow from Bears defenceman Madison Bowey in Game Four. Keefe admired the player’s resilience, dating all the way back to the start of the post-season when the World Junior hero was a spare part.
“Kapanen is another guy that just really leaves on a positive note,” Keefe said. “This is a guy that started at a bottom, he was a healthy scratch in Game One of the playoffs (versus Bridgeport) for us.
He really grew and earned his way into premium ice time, and grew his way being a difference maker for our team. Another young player who really grew a lot with this experience.”
Defenceman Connor Carrick ends his season as the AHL’s leading playoff scorer with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 15 games played.
The Marlies last advanced to the Calder Cup final in 2012 when they were swept by the Norfolk Admirals.