It was a must win for the Toronto Marlies, and the urgency and desperation was visible from puck drop.
A much-needed tone-setting shift off the opening faceoff by Trevor Smith, Carter Ashton and Sam Carrick got the ball rolling for the Marlies in this one, as a hard forecheck followed by a cycle and penalty draw led to the first of three consecutive Spencer Abbott powerplay goals.
On the ensuing powerplay, Abbott, stationed on the point, wristed one past Nilstorp with Josh Leivo playing screen, marking the 11th straight playoff game in which the Marlies have opened the scoring and Abbott’s first goal of the playoffs.
This time the Marlies sustained the pressure throughout the first period. A good battle by TJ Brennan in the corner of his own zone frustrated Kevin Henderson and drew a retaliatory roughing penalty, sending the Marlies back to the powerplay.
Abbott’s second PP goal of the period came on a rebound springing off a point shot by who else but Brennan, who continues to do it all for the Marlies in these playoffs.
The Marlies outshot the Stars 11-6 in a big pushback period as far as this series went, as the desperation was visible in the Marlie effort and they were able to string together some positive shifts of offensive zone time on the cycle.
Abbott completed his natural hat trick five minutes into an evenly-played second period, with his best goal of the bunch coming on a 5 on 3 man advantage. A shot-fake sent the penalty killer to the ice before Abbott cut to the middle and ripped one into the wide open side, as Nilstorp, forced to guess due to the presence of Leivo’s posterior in his face, had dropped on the initial fake.
The Marlies made their third-period shutdown effort look fairly routine; they allowed just 10 shots despite taking three penalties and the Stars pulling their goalie for much of the final 7 minutes, holding their blueline effectively and clogging up the slot. MacIntyre, for his part, came up with a couple of big saves including a particularly important sprawling toe save on Curtis MacKenzie with 13 minutes remaining.
Jerry D’Amigo scored his sixth of the playoffs (tied with Brennan, Holland for the team lead) on an empty netter from the neutral zone after Kevin Marshall broke up a Stars zone entry at the blueline.
Unfortunately, Drew MacIntyre’s shutout was spoiled after Andrew MacWilliam attempted a ring-around the boards with little pressure on him; the puck didn’t get out and it led to Radek Faksa’s 4-1 goal with a minute and a half remaining.
- Three unofficial assists for Josh Leivo in this game as he provided an effective net front presence on all three Spencer Abbott goals. Leivo was buzzing in this game, ripping shots throughout including three on goal and a couple of near misses. One of his best efforts of the playoffs.
- Peter Holland, clearly above AHL hockey, added two assists in this game to take his playoff totals to 6 goals, 6 assists and 12 points in 8 games. Holland’s puck protection, soft hands and playmaking ability stand out as NHL tools on an AHL rink. An NHL shot was also full display in the first period when he beat Nilstorph clean from the circle and rang the cross bar.
- Holland has 22 points in 22 games between the end of AHL regular season and playoffs, giving him 136 in 151 in his AHL career. Those are really solid numbers. The Leafs have a nice piece here.
- Despite another healthy lead before the game was half over, the Marlies held the Stars to just 28 shots, their lowest total of the series thus far. MacIntyre came up big when asked as he has all season, but it was a commendable defensive effort from this group to contain the Stars attack for, really, the first time this series, and without Korbinian Holzer to boot (Dylan Yeo played in his stead).
- Holzer is not expected to return in the next couple of games due to the lower-body injury.
- Spott liked the effort from the fourth line of Smithson (in for Biggs, scratched), Ross and Ryan, indicating he’ll keep them together for next game.
- You hate to see a guy like Spencer Abbott, who has ripped it up for the Marlies all season, get blacklisted as a permanent AHL all-star who can’t crack an NHL roster. It would nice to see him make some noise at camp next Fall, but tearing it up on the powerplay in the AHL doesn’t necessarily beget a future NHL career (12 of his 20 goals came with the man advantage so far this season + playoffs). Without high-end wheels, at his size it’s difficult to create those same openings in the NHL. Full credit for rising to the occasion as one of the offensive leaders of this team, nonetheless.
This was a good response by the Marlies, one that ensures this will be a long, hard-fought series at a minimum. They’re one of the youngest teams in the AHL and they’re going toe-to-toe with the AHL’s very best regular season team in the Conference Finals. On a night when the Habs kissed their 2014 Cup hopes goodbye, it’s nice to have a few things to smile about in Leafland.