Never say never: Marlies off to conference finals

by Mike Ulmer || AHL On The Beat Archive

tor-celeb_250.jpgAnd this, people, is why you never say never.

Eight days ago, Syracuse looked like an elephant burial ground for the Toronto Marlies. They had lost their first two home games, they were heading to a hostile arena and they were averaging less than two goals per playoff game.

But four wins in five games, including Monday’s 3-2 win over the Syracuse Crunch, fixed things nicely.

Now, the Marlies giddily anticipate the their third-round opponent, either the Rockford IceHogs or the Chicago Wolves, for the Western Conference Championship. The two teams play Tuesday in Chicago.

This marks the second straight series won in the maximum by the Marlies. The San Antonio Rampage (remember them?) went down first. Bates Battaglia scored the winner on a snail-like shot that found the net in the 60th minute of regulation.

Had he seen it, Syracuse goalie Karl Goehring could have stopped John Mitchell’s butterfly without the benefit of equipment. The Marlies were already up 2-1 in the third on Monday when Mitchell lofted a shot toward the net with about 13 minutes to play.

“I knew I couldn’t get a hard shot and I saw Jiri (Tlusty) right in front,” said Mitchell of his eighth goal in 14 postseason games. “I wanted to put it there soft and maybe get it to Jiri or get a rebound. Goehring went down because he couldn’t see it. It was going over the crossbar and it just died and fell into the net.”

The Crunch would die with it. They narrowed the game on a goal by Gilbert Brule with eight minutes left and mounted considerable pressure but the Marlies were the better club and outshot Syracuse 34-20.

A boisterous crowd of 4,753 people counted off the final seconds.

The Marlies gave themselves two choice opportunities to bow out gracefully. The first, of course, was when they arrived at the War Memorial in Syracuse for Game 3 and already two games in the hole. Instead they pummeled Syracuse, 8-2.

But they dropped Game 4 in overtime after giving up two goals in the final eight minutes. Once again, that should have been it. Instead, the Marlies won three straight one-goal decisions.

“Why didn’t we quit?” repeated Brent Aubin in a buoyant Toronto dressing room. “We’ve got great chemistry. Everybody loves each other. We made a commitment at the start of the year. Since Day 1, the Calder Cup has been on our mind.”

The subject of tenacity is a good one for Aubin who arrived in Toronto for his first full pro season with 192 goals on his junior hockey resume.

At Christmastime, he had two and there is no creature in the sporting universe less immune to fear than a goal scorer who can’t find the net.

“I had a lot of doubts. I was too nervous,” Aubin said. “I needed to get the puck on the stick, feel it and don’t rush the play. When I would sit out four games ago, I watched a couple of games we played against Syracuse and I said, I’m not working the way I should.”

Aubin began to feel it again. He scored twice in Game 7, once on a deflection, once when Alex Foster found him in the slot.

There are, on the Marlies, as many stories as there are sweaters. Aubin is an easygoing kid from Quebec at once curbing and exploring his offensive instincts to get on the ice as often as he can. There are pros, lots of them, who sharpen up the group. Some, maybe most, will not graduate to the Maple Leafs but they are giving what they have to give where they are. That makes for some compelling theater.

Ask coach Greg Gilbert to name a few glue guys. He can’t.

“I’d have to name 10 or 12. You’ve got Jay Harrison and Bryan Muir, Kris Newbury, Bates Battaglia, Benny Ondrus, you could go down the list. Staffan Kronwall. I could name every one of our guys. At one point or another, they made a key play in the series.”

Mike Ulmer covers the Marlies for