(Jake Gardiner should be with the Leafs any day now)

Feb. 18: Marlies 1 vs. Aeros 2
Marlies scorers: Connolly (5)
Aeros scorers: Rau (7), shootout winner – Petersen
Links: Box Score | Discussion boards

Forward lines: Hamilton-Colborne-Abbott, Crescenzi-D’Amigo-Scott, Deschamps-Zigomanis-Connolly, Ashton-Acton-Ryan, McKegg
Defence pairings: Gysbers-Mottau, Blacker-Gardiner, Yeo
Goaltenders: MacIntyre (Shootout Loss, 65:00 minutes played, 12 saves, 1 GA), Owuya (0:00)

In the near future, defenceman Jake Gardiner should be able to stop having his mail re-routed from Bay Street to Princes Boulevard.

The Leafs blueliner has had a tumultuous past few months since suffering a concussion at the hands of Rochester Americans centre Kevin Porter while playing for the Marlies during the NHL lockout. After playing a wobbly two games with the parent club upon the end of the labour dispute, Gardiner was reassigned to the American League where he has toiled ever since.

But if Sunday’s game versus the Houston Aeros is any indication, Gardiner appears more than ready for a return to the NHL.

The 22-year-old racked up over 30 minutes of ice time in Toronto’s 2-1 loss to the AHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, the club that plays in Gardiner’s native state. “That’s probably the best game I’ve seen him play all year,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. “He played some really good ones early on in the season pre (NHL) lockout. I was impressed by that young man here today.” For the fourth straight game Eakins used only five defencemen with Paul Ranger out and the bulk of the core of the team’s blueline now with the Leafs.

“He can handle the minutes right now,” said Eakins of Gardiner, who played in all situations on Sunday, even manning the point for an entire two-minute power-play.

The extra ice time – virtually every other shift – admittedly left Gardiner tired towards the end of the overtime session, but was also a welcome litmus test for his imminent return to the big club. “I love playing 5 defencemen, it’s awesome,” said Gardiner. “I was moving my legs a lot, and moving the puck quick and making smart plays. It always helps when you’re teammates are playing well.” Gardiner was paired with Jesse Blacker for much of the game, a defence partner whom Eakins said was also prepared to handle the additional playing time.

With the loss the Marlies fell behind four points behind the Aeros for fifth place in the Western Conference although Toronto has played five fewer games. Tim Connolly was the only Marlies player to beat Houston goalie Matt Hackett in regulation time. Spencer Abbott was able to put on a nice backhand move in the shootout, but the Aeros were able to get the better of Marlies netminder Drew MacIntyre for the extra point.

The activation of Carl Gunnarsson off injured reserve puts the Leafs at eight defencmen. The blueline is about to get more crowded.

Suddenly it seems like a nice problem for Dave Nonis to have.

Audio – Dallas Eakins post-game:

Audio – Jake Gardiner post-game:

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

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