Sunday notebook: Marlies climbing up North standings

Photo: Scott Thomas

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Now is the time for the Toronto Marlies to bank some points, though the menu of opponents does them no favors.

In January the Marlies have their annual midseason extended road trip while Coca-Cola Coliseum is transformed into an indoor lake for the Toronto International Boat Show. This year it’s a nine-gamer that begins Jan. 14 and takes them into the AHL All-Star break with stops in Belleville, Charlotte, Cleveland, Lehigh Valley, Hershey, Wilkes-Barre and Utica.

The Marlies were winless in six straight between Nov. 19 and Dec. 2, but will take a three-game winning streak into this afternoon’s visit to Hartford. They arrived in Connecticut’s capital city after handling the red-hot Providence Bruins, 8-2, on Friday at Amica Mutual Pavilion, as Dylan Gambrell supplied two goals along with a pair of assists while captain Logan Shaw provided a shorthanded goal along with a power-play tally. With two assists, Alex Steeves set a new club record by taking his point streak to 14 games (11 goals, nine assists). And Dennis Hildeby now has a 1.82 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage as he bids for the AHL lead in both categories after handling 32 of 34 Providence shots.

The Marlies continue to battle despite an ever-shifting roster. Defenseman Max Lajoie, forwards Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg, and goaltender Martin Jones remain on recall with the parent Toronto Maple Leafs; McMann scored his first NHL goal and Jones earned the shutout in the Leafs’ 7-0 win over Pittsburgh last night. Veteran blueliner Cameron Gaunce made his Marlies debut Friday.

Today the Marlies have to deal with the Wolf Pack, whose 15-5-4-0 record is tied for the second-best mark in the AHL. Toronto can move past idle Rochester and into third place in the North Division before returning home, where they will face Providence again on Wednesday. The Marlies also have five meetings with Belleville coming up in the next month; the Senators trail Toronto by two points.

Friday’s victory pleased first-year Toronto head coach John Gruden, a former Providence Bruins defenseman who spent last season as an assistant coach with Boston. Gruden knows that Providence ice can be a difficult place for visiting clubs.

“Coming into a building like this, it’s not easy,” Gruden told following the victory. “They come hard. They’re a hard-working team. They’re detail-oriented. They’re well coached. The guys came in understanding that, and they stuck to a game plan. All four lines, all six D, and the goaltending, I thought our guys were excellent, especially for being a road game.”

Jiri Kulich’s rookie season was impressive enough. Now the Rochester Americans forward, who doesn’t even turn 20 until April 14, is turning it up another notch.

Kulich scored his AHL-leading 16th goal of the season in last night’s 2-1 Amerks loss in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That followed Friday’s 3-2 win in Hartford in which he netted the tying goal late in regulation before potting the winner in overtime.

Last season, Kulich put together one of the best seasons by an 18-year-old in AHL history, recording 24 goals and 46 points before picking up goals in each of his first six playoff games to help the Amerks advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, Kulich made his NHL debut with the Sabres last month. He has totaled 22 points in 22 games for Rochester in 2023-24.

It’s been an eventful week for the Springfield Thunderbirds, who will take a six-game point streak (5-0-1-0) into Hershey to face the league-leading Bears this afternoon.

The Thunderbirds have won each of their first two games under interim head coach Daniel Tkaczuk, who took over after Drew Bannister was promoted to the same position with the parent St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night. Tkaczuk has been with the organization in a variety of roles since 2016 and is a former Calder Cup champion as a player with the Saint John Flames in 2001.

Springfield’s roster also got a boost on Thursday when the Blues assigned Jakub Vrana to the club. Vrana recorded two assists in his Thunderbirds debut, a 4-2 win at Lehigh Valley last night.

An organizational shuffle to begin the weekend left the Coachella Valley Firebirds feeling fortified.

The Seattle Kraken acquired forward Tomas Tatar from the Colorado Avalanche, a move that allowed the Kraken to return forward Marian Studenic to the Firebirds. Studenic has seven goals and 12 points in 17 games for Coachella Valley this season.

With Chris Driedger up in Seattle and Ales Stezka injured, Jack LaFontaine has won each of his first two starts as a Firebird, including a 5-2 decision over Bakersfield last night. Coachella Valley has won four in a row and takes a six-game point streak (5-0-1-0) into today’s home date with Colorado.

Kyle Rau needed a job and the San Jose Barracuda needed some experience up front. So the two sides struck a deal on Monday with the long-time forward signing an AHL contract for the rest of the 2023-24 season.

The Barracuda have lost forwards Justin Bailey, Ryan Carpenter and Oskar Lindblom to extended recalls by the parent San Jose Sharks. Rau, meanwhile, had been back home in Minnesota training after going unsigned in the offseason despite 16 goals and 35 points in 68 games last season with Abbotsford.

Rau brings 61 games of NHL experience with him, and in 431 AHL games he has 292 points (133 goals, 159 assists) and has surpassed 20 goals three times in his career. Barracuda head coach John McCarthy wasted no time in inserting Rau into the lineup, dressing him for the team’s 3-0 home win against Calgary on Friday night. Rau picked up an assist in last night’s 5-2 win as San Jose completed a sweep of the teams’ two-game set.