by Patrick Williams | for TheAHL.com
Even amid a 112-point season, a 14-4 mark in the Calder Cup Playoffs and countless achievements, Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe doles out praise carefully.
Fairly, it should be pointed out, but carefully.
So it was rather notable when Keefe was downright effusive after the Marlies’ 6-2 win in Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals against the Texas Stars this past Saturday night. The win puts the Marlies one victory away from the Calder Cup going into Game 6 on Tuesday at Ricoh Coliseum.
“This team is all-in,” Keefe said.
Locked in a 2-2 series against a relentless opponent in Texas inside of the sold-out H-E-B Center at Cedar Park, the Marlies had their work cut out for them. Texas had already split the opening two games in Toronto and taken a Game 4 victory. The Marlies had to extricate themselves from a 2-2 series in the first round, but this challenge was something altogether different.
“You’re anxious just going into [Game 5] knowing how much it means,” Keefe admitted after Game 5.
A strong open by the Stars had the typically loud Texas fans even rambunctious than usual inside a building that retains sound very well.
That was until Andreas Johnsson scooped up a loose puck at the far blue line and finished a breakaway all of 1:32 into the game.
Then Trevor Moore followed 47 seconds later off a net-front play, and it was 2-0.
While the Stars staggered and struggled to process what had just happened, that Texas crowd settled down very quickly.
But as they so often do, the Stars kept pressing, and their fans picked up the energy along with them. They managed to escape the first period only down 2-0. All things considered, that had to be viewed as something of a relief.
Now it was a 2-1 game, Texas immediately launched an all-out attack on Toronto, and a 2-2 game was looking very possible. Toronto had twice erased Texas two-goal leads in the series, and the Stars had an opportunity to pay that back in Game 5.
However, one difficult shift for the Stars was all the Marlies needed to put a stop to that. Marlies veteran winger Colin Greening got loose in the slot and steered a one-timer off a Chris Mueller pass low past Texas goaltender Mike McKenna, and the visitors had again claimed a two-goal advantage.
And as the Marlies tend to do, the offense came in a wave.
Marlies defenseman Calle Rosen, who had four goals in 62 regular-season games, finished a beautiful rush into the Texas zone 1:02 later, his first of two on the night.
It was a 4-1 game.
“Our response after that to me was a championship-caliber response,” Keefe termed it.
“If you want to be a team that is going to win and play deep into the playoffs and is going to have a chance to win a Calder Cup, you need to have those types of moments, and we had it.”
The lead grew to 5-1 by the second intermission. The Marlies chased McKenna, who has been excellent through throughout the postseason, and locked down the win with an efficient third period.
Throughout much of the season the Marlies have been able to impose their style and will on even the best opponents. They swept the Syracuse Crunch and Lehigh Valley in back-to-back series so efficiently that maintaining a sharp team amid long breaks ended up perhaps being Keefe’s biggest challenge.
But in this series, they have run into a Texas team that is both willing and able to push back hard.
However, Toronto has absorbed that and pushed back even harder. Keefe has relished the adversity of the two months of grueling hockey that is required to chase down a Calder Cup.
“The leadership that we have on our team, I’ve never been apart of a team that has been so committed to playing as a group and winning and continuing on,” Keefe said.
“The difference between good teams and great teams, is the commitment of the players, and their drive, and their focus to want to win.
“I’ve never been a part of anything as special as this group that we have here.”