TORONTO - A smashing return by Jiri Tlusty helped the Toronto Marlies keep their hopes of winning the West alive.
Tlusty had two goals and two assists and a five-goal Marlies second period helped Toronto pull away from the Chicago Wolves for an 8-3 win on Wednesday night.
The win drew the Marlies to within two points of the Wolves for top spot in the Western Conference. At stake is home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs and both teams have three games remaining.
Tlusty was playing his first game with the Marlies since Dec. 15. The young Czech now has five goals and 12 points in 11 AHL games this year and benefited greatly from his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL.
"When you're playing with guys like Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, you learn every day," Tlusty said. "You learn small things and you can use it here because guys up there, they're smart, they've been playing a long time and if you're watching the guys and are learning small details you can use it here."
Tlusty wasn't the only freshly demoted Leaf to contribute in his first game back.
Defenceman Staffan Kronwall produced a goal and an assist of his own in front of 3,113 fans at the Ricoh Coliseum. Toronto defencemen Jay Harrison had a goal and two assists while blue-liner Jamie Sifers and winger David Ling each kicked in a goal and a helper.
Chris Harrington and captain Ben Ondrus added singles and John Mitchell had a three-assist night to help Toronto (48-20-3-6) put up its highest-scoring game of the season.
Joel Kwiatkowski, Jordan LaVallee and Nathan Oystrick answered for Chicago (51-21-2-3).
Scott Clemmensen (22-13-2) got the win in goal as Toronto halted a two-game losing streak with a big two points.
"It was a big game for us, there's no question and the guys had no problem getting up and ready for it," said Marlies coach Greg Gilbert. "Chicago is a dangerous team, they have such great offensive players and strong goaltending. We knew we had to play solid defensively and I thought we did a good job taking way the good ice."
Harrison, known primarily for his defensive abilities and physical play, enjoyed his three-point night.
"It was great to contribute offensively, it's not usually a characteristic of my game," he said, adding he thought the Marlies wore down Chicago with a strong forecheck in the first before their offensive outburst in the second. "When I can, I like to help the team (offensively), it's fun, but we take care of our own zone first."
Kris Newbury also returned from the Leafs and whipped a beautiful cross-ice pass to Sifers on Toronto's second goal. Harrison said having three capable bodies back from the big leagues was an immense boost.
"It's great to have their presence in the lineup, obviously Jiri's skill and then Staffan's and Kris' experience at this level," said Harrison. "You can't replace that and you can't manufacture that when they're out of the lineup, so it's really nice to have them back ."
In addition to coming in bunches, many of the Marlies' goals were beauties.
Ling opened the scoring on a gorgeous feed from Bates Battaglia. Just as he was about to carry the puck behind the Chicago net, Battaglia slid a no-look, backhand pass to the bottom of the circle where Ling was in position to one-time it.
The teams each bagged two goals apiece in the first before the Marlies offence exploded in the second frame.
Ondrus scored on a slapper to the top shelf just 51 seconds into the middle stanza and Tlusty banged in a rebound on the power play less than two minutes later.
But Toronto wasn't done.
Harrington finished off a nice 2-on-1 pass from Mitchell before Tlusty got his second of the night by wiring a gorgeous wrist shot over the glove of Ondrej Pavelec.
The combination of skill and strength Tlusty demonstrated in shaking a defender and threading the needle with a shot wasn't lost on his coach.
"He's got a great shot and he's a smart kid, especially in the offensive zone," Gilbert said. "And you know he works, he works without the puck, he works with the puck. He made a real strong move on his second goal, beat a guy on the wall, walk in the middle and ripping it home, so he's come a long way, there's no question about that and it was good to see him have some success tonight."
Harrison added his 12th of the year on a power play before the second period ended and Pavelec was replaced by Robert Gherson.
Kronwall fired home a wrist shot in the third to round out the big night of scoring.
While the Marlies are making a push for the conference title, they already have the North Division locked up with 105 points.
Tlusty is excited to be back for what he hopes is a long spring of playoff hockey.
"It's a great opportunity for every younger player," he said of taking part in the intense, physical grind of an AHL post-season. "I'm glad I can be here and hopefully we'll have a long run."
NOTES: Toronto's Robbie Earl had a two-assist game. The game began a stretch of four contests in five nights for the Marlies, which concludes with their season-ending home game versus the Manitoba Moose on Sunday. ... Toronto lost its only other game against Chicago this year, 5-4.