For many young players in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, this season is just getting started. The Toronto Marlies, for example, are flying high and within striking distance of the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Tonight, however, their friends on the Orlando Solar Bears bowed out of the ECHL playoffs, falling 1-0 to the Florida Everblades in Game 6 of the opening around.
The Solar Bears came into this one as underdogs, finishing 21 points back of the third overall Everblades in the regular season standings. As for how it went? Well, it was an interesting series to say the least.
Despite a thirty save performance by Garret Sparks and a pair of assists from Brad Ross, the Leafs prospect that stuck out the most in Game 1 was a former one. Nicolas Deschamps picked up the game’s opening and closing goals, which pushed the Everblades to a 3-2 victory. Game 2 started off well, with Brett Findlay opening up the scoring, but a less than exemplary effort by Sparks meant than four goals sailed the wrong way in just fifteen shots. While Maxime Clermont stepped in to relieve him of his duties, the Bears weren’t able to turn things around in time and fell behind by two games.
Orlando took a complete 180 degree turn in Game 3, breathing new life into the series with a victory that they probably shouldn’t have had. Florida’s Allen York surrendered four goals on eighteen shots, and Sparks rebounded with an insane 48 save performance that anchored the 5-2 victory. The momentum was carried into the following game, as Brady Vail picked up a pair en route to a 4-2 series-tying win.
That was as close as it got though. The Everblades outshot the Solar Bears once again on Saturday night, and while Orlando picked up four goals, the forty five shots on net were just too much to handle. This put their backs against the wall tonight, and while Sparks was unbeaten for 72:39, a goal by Alex Aleardi sent the team packing in an overtime heartbreaker.
Veteran John McInnis lead the team with six points in six games, while 20 year old Brady Vail had the goal lead with four in five. Sparks ended the series with a 0.921 save percentage.
This ended an interesting season for the Solar Bears, who, like the Marlies, crawled out from a poor start to make it into the playoffs. As you can probably imagine by the prior group of paragraphs, goaltending played a huge part in the team’s success, and Garret Sparks ones the one who gave them the most of it. while the other four goaltenders in the team’s rotation combined for a 0.898 save percentage, Sparks’ 0.936 over thirty six games surged the team to a 21-7-3 record in games that he started. It was the highest save percentage in the ECHL by a large margin; the closest to him being Jeff Jakaitis with a 0.924.
In front of him, Jacob Cepis lead the team in scoring with 56 points in 59 games. Denver Manderson had the best season out of players in the Leafs organization, picking up 50 points in 52 games, though Brett Findlay, Patrick Watling, Peter Sivak, Ryan Rupert, and Brad Ross all hovered in the point-per-game range as well. Eric Knodel was the leading defensive scorer amongst Leafs prospects, grabbing 5 goals and 14 assists in 38 games.
While the likes of Manderson, Rupert, Tyler Biggs, and Matt Finn are already with the team (in the case of the latter three, Orlando was a conditioning stint), a few Solar Bears can still come up to the Marlies. Knodel, Ross, and Sparks are obvious additions as full-on Leafs prospects, you might see a few others tag along. Findlay, Vail, and Watling are all under AHL/ECHL two way deals, meaning that they’re still Marlies property until at least the end of the season, along with Sivak and Stefan Della Rovere. You could also see the Marlies sign Bryce Aneloski to an ATO at some point; they’ve done it a few times in the past, and he’s played with the team as recently as February.
As for a specific integration plan? As of this weekend, Gord Dineen wasn’t quite sure. “We’ll have to see if and when that happens.” said the Toronto head coach on Sunday night. “Right now we don’t really have a plan moving forward.” It’s safe to assume that one is being put into place as we speak.
Original photo taken by @melissaperry on Twitter