The Toronto Marlies received their wake-up call March 18, and it was a rude one.
Leading 4-1 against the last-place Binghamton Senators at home, Toronto allowed seven thirdA-period goals and lost 8-4.
The loss could have been costly in the clogged North Division race. At the time Toronto was clinging to a playoff spot, stuck in third place in the division and fending off the fourth-place St. John's IceCaps, who were one point behind. The top four teams in each of the four AHL divisions qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs and Toronto sat four points above the division playoff line.
Toronto has been on the right path since then. Three nights later, the Marlies delivered a 6-0 home win against the Rochester Americans. Toronto then re-paid Binghamton in a 4-2 road win on March 24.
"[A loss like that] brings a team closer together," said Toronto forward Seth Griffith, who has 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists) in 33 games since being acquired on waivers from the Florida Panthers on Jan. 21.
Five more wins have followed and Toronto is once again in a comfortable position thanks to a seven-game winning streak that has seen the Marlies outscore opponents 29-9.
"I think that is something that we talked about as a leadership group afterward," captain Andrew Campbell said. "You wake up [the next day] and you're like, 'Wow, we really need to get ourselves together and get going in the right direction.'"
Those seven consecutive wins have put Toronto in first place in the North Division with a four-point lead. They can clinch a playoff berth Wednesday if the Albany Devils lose to the Syracuse Crunch in any fashion.
That home loss to Binghamton arrived at a pivotal point in the season for Toronto, which went 4-2-1-0 after March 1 heading into that home game against Binghamton. Seeking to position the Marlies for a long playoff run, management was active prior the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring veterans in defenseman Steve Olesky and forward Mike Sislo. They followed those moves by adding experienced center Cal O'Reilly on loan from Rochester.
In all, the late-season moves have added up to an 11-3-1-0 run.
"We like our group," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "I think [those moves] do give a boost. The confidence of our group certainly increases. It came at a good time for us.
"Now you've got your competition that you want to have. You want to have your young players to have a lot of opportunity. You also want to make sure that they're earning their place."
The Milwaukee Admirals clinched a playoff berth for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons Tuesday. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have the longest playoff streak in the AHL at 15 consecutive seasons after clinching a playoff berth last week. They lead the AHL with 98 points.
The defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters are in a playoff battle as they attempt to fend off the surging Charlotte Checkers. Cleveland leads Charlotte by one point but Charlotte has one game in hand. Cleveland has won eight of its past 10 games (8-1-1-0) while Charlotte has wins in 10 of its past 12.
The Hershey Bears face a daunting path to the postseason. A Calder Cup finalist last season, Hershey is three points out of a playoff spot in the stacked Atlantic Division despite having the fifth-most points in the Eastern Conference. Starting Wednesday against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Hershey plays four of its final five games on the road. Elsewhere in the division, two points separate second-place Lehigh Valley from the fourth-place Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
In the North Division, three teams are pushing for third and fourth place; Albany, St. John's, and the Utica Comets are separated by one point.
The Battle of Alberta is extending southward to California for the AHL affiliates of the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division. The Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton) and Stockton Heat (Calgary) are each tied for fourth place in the division with six games remaining.
The AHL named new Charlotte forward Aleksi Saarela its CCM/AHL Player of the Week award winner for the period ending last Sunday. Saarela, 20, had four goals and two assists in his first four AHL games. The Carolina Hurricanes acquired him from the New York Rangers in the Eric Staal trade on Feb. 28, 2016.
Hershey defenseman Christian Djoos was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for March; he had 16 points (three goals, 13 assists) in 13 games.
Charlotte goaltender Tom McCollum won the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month award. He went 7-1-1 in nine games with a 1.88 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. Charlotte acquired him on loan from Stockton prior to the AHL roster deadline on March 8th.
Stockton forward Mark Jankowski won the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month award after he had 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 13 games.
Chicago forward Kenny Agostino leads the AHL in scoring with 79 points (22 goals, 57 assists). … Chicago teammate Wade Megan and Pontus Aberg of Milwaukee each have a league-leading 31 goals. … Zane McIntyre of the Providence Bruins leads the AHL in GAA (1.91) and save percentage (.934).
ON THE MOVE
Milwaukee added defenseman Samuel Girard from Shawinigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was a second-round choice (No. 47) of the Nashville Predators in the 2016 NHL Draft. … Two of the busiest goaltenders headed to the NHL on Wednesday. Rochester goaltender Linus Ullmark was recalled by the Buffalo Sabres. His 53 games and 3,082 minutes lead all AHL goalies. Manitoba goaltender Eric Comrie was recalled by the Winnipeg Jets; he is third in the AHL in games (48) and minutes (2,741). … San Antonio forward Rocco Grimaldi, whose 29 goals are second-most in the AHL, is on recall with the Colorado Avalanche along with defenseman Duncan Siemens. … Defenseman Jake Bean, chosen by the Carolina Hurricanes with the No. 13 pick of the 2016 draft, has joined Charlotte. …Through Tuesday, 106 AHL players have played their first NHL game this season.