TORONTO - It's safe to say the Toronto Marlies are happy to have Jiri Tlusty back.
Tlusty continued his hot play with a goal and two assists as the Marlies improved their chances of winning the Western Conference with a convincing 6-2 over the woeful Rochester Americans.
"He's just a really skilled guy," said Kris Newbury of his young Czech teammate. "When he gets the puck in front of the net he makes things happen."
Tlusty, who scored a breakaway goal 24 seconds into the third period, continues to thrive since being sent down from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He now has four goals and five assists in three games with the Marlies.
Kris Newbury, John Mitchell, David Ling and Jay Harrison each contributed a goal and an assist as Toronto rocketed out of the gate with four goals in the first period and never looked back.
Alex Foster also scored for the Marlies (50-20-3-6), who at least temporarily moved ahead of the Chicago Wolves for top spot in the West with one game remaining on their schedule. Toronto, which has won three straight, can finish no lower than No. 2 in the West.
Justin Pogge (26-10-4) stopped 23 shots to earn the win in front of a healthy crowd of 7,140 fans at the Ricoh Coliseum.
Rochester got a goal from Dan Collins in the second period before Brady Calla concluded the afternoon's scoring in the third with the game out of reach for the Americans.
Tlusty credited a spike in ice time since being sent down with improving his game.
"If you're playing more, you have more ice time, it's so much better and I learned up there and now I'm using the things I learned there," said the 20-year-old rookie. "But it's so much better for myself if you're playing with guys, they're playing well, the whole team is playing well, it feels better and now we are rolling and hopefully we'll roll in the playoffs."
Toronto certainly stormed out of the gate, perhaps an indication of just how bad it wants to earn the No. 1 seed in the West and home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
"Tonight we started off really well and were able to capitalize really early, which was good," said Newbury, adding the Marlies entered the weekend hungry to pick up four points in their final two regular season games.
After a goal-filled first, the teams exchanged markers in the second period. Collins got Rochester (23-46-6-4) on the board in the period's dying minutes, but an Americans penalty sent Toronto to the power play and Harrison cashed in with just 27 seconds left in the stanza as his point shot went through a crowd and past Rochester goalie Adam Dennis (17-26-2).
The action came fast and furious in the opening 20 minutes, as the period featured goals just 26 seconds apart from the Marlies and ended with wide open 3-on-3 hockey after some rough stuff.
Newbury acknowledged it can be difficult for a team to maintain focus when it opens a wide lead early on.
"It's always tough when you get up by a lot, you try and do more stuff with the puck and you kind of change your game," he said. "I think in the third period we kind of kept our game the way we wanted to and it got a little chippy in the first. We want to keep our good discipline and play our systems well."
Ling kicked off the scoring after taking a beautiful cross-ice pass from Newbury and wiring a wrist shot just under the crossbar and over the glove of Dennis.
The benefit of some friendly bounces then put the Marlies up 3-0 in a hurry. First, Foster's centring pass to nobody in particular deflected off Rochester's Marc-Andre Gragnani in the slot and slid past Dennis. Then, seconds later, Harrison's point shot caromed off Newbury in front of the goal and hit the back of the net.
The Marlies first-period assault culminated when a shot from Andy Wozniewski went wide of the goal and bounced to the opposite side of the net, where Mitchell swooped in and one-timed it home.
With the game heavily tilted in the Marlies' favour, pushing and shoving after nearly ever whistle became the norm. The game also featured two fights. While the last thing a team wants is injuries on the eve of the post-season, Newbury said Toronto had to stand its ground against a team with nothing on the line.
"Obviously you don't want anybody to get hurt," said Newbury, who has a goal and two assists in three games since returning from the Maple Leafs. "They're over there playing for nothing really, just jobs next year. You want to cross your fingers and hold your breath that no one gets hurt, but at the same time you've got to stick up for your teammates and play a good team game."
Chicago was slated to host the Rockford IceHogs on Saturday night and both the Marlies and Wolves play home games on Sunday to conclude the AHL schedule. If the teams, which each had 107 points to start Saturday's action, end up with the same number of points after a full 80 games, Chicago will win the tie-breaker based on having more victories.
Notes: While their opponent isn't yet determined, the Marlies' first two home playoff games will be this Wednesday and Friday nights. ... Stefano Giliati, who spent the year with Lewiston of the Quebec Junior League, did not register a point in his first game of the season with the Marlies. ... Toronto hosts the Manitoba Moose in its final game of the season on Sunday afternoon.