All the talk before the playoffs was about how the Toronto Marlies were going to blow teams away with their potent offense.
That hasn’t been the case so far, as they’ve shown impressive defensive fortitude and shut down the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the second consecutive time in the series. The Marlies were certainly less reliant on goaltending in game two as it was a better 60-minute effort from all skaters.
It was Bridgeport who came fast out the gates as they did Saturday night, controlling the first 45 seconds in the Toronto zone and forcing Garret Sparks into an early save in his first career start in the AHL playoffs.
A slow start from the Marlies, then, but nothing compared to the beginning of game one, when they allowed 20 shots on Antoine Bibeau during the opening frame. Toronto grew into the period and forced Stephon Williams into his first save two and a half minutes in.
Connor Carrick, who has begun to adapt to his role with the Marlies, produced a nice piece of play that opened a lane for a shot on net. Williams could only block the effort which rebounded all the way out to Zach Hyman at the top of the left circle. With a huge amount of the cage to aim at, the right winger was disappointed to place his effort wide.
On the same shift, Williams was forced into further action, making his best save so far to rob Ben Smith in front.
A first Marlies powerplay saw Toronto control the zone and move the puck well, but they were unable to force an opening as the hosts did well to get into the lanes and block a handful of shots. Seconds after the man advantage expired, Bracken Kearns was allowed to walk out in front of Toronto’s net, where his backhand effort was met by Sparks’ best stop of the period.
The fourth line drew a powerplay with just under seven minutes remaining. Rich Clune and Frederik Gauthier’s hard graft behind the goal line helped create Kasperi Kapanen’s gilt-edged chance in front before Patrick Cullity held Kapanen’s stick, denying him the opportunity.
Josh Leivo came the closest to opening the scoring with the ensuing man advantage. He was unfortunate not to put home the rebound efforts of Mark Arcobello and Connor Carrick as finally Toronto were able to get shots through the Bridgeport wall of defense.
The last opportunity of the period for Toronto came through Sam Carrick. Out in front of the net, Williams denied him on consecutive efforts to ensure the teams headed into the intermission with duck eggs on the scoreboard.
The shot totals were equal at 12 each after the opening 20 minutes, and they remained tied at 25 each after two periods of play. Despite plenty of shots, there weren’t many high-grade scorings opportunities during the second period.
Both team exchanged a couple of shots off the rush, but it took until the eighth minute for a clear-cut chance to present itself. William Nylander used his electrifying speed to get away from his man down the right wing before finding Connor Carrick in the slot with an inch-perfect pass. Carrick looked a shoe-in to score, but his shot was blocked in front, possibly by Hyman, as the Sound Tigers caught a break.
If you took the time to read my preview for this series, you may remember that I mentioned how poor Bridgeport’s powerplay has been this season and its propensity to give up shorthanded goals. With 22 seconds remaining on a penalty to Connor Carrick, Connor Brown escaped down the left boards and in on net. With his speed leaving backcheckers in his wake, Brown had his initial effort turned aside, but — in typical Brown fashion — he stuck with the play and put home his own rebound on the second effort.
That proved the only scoring of the period as both goaltenders gave up little in the way of second opportunities, and the Sound Tigers were certainly relieved to only be down by one after 40 minutes.
An altercation as the buzzer sounded for the second meant Toronto began the third on the powerplay. It was a poor effort, however, that ended without Williams being tested.
Back at even strength, the Marlies were back on their game. Nikita Soshnikov ripped a shot only just wide of the far post while Williams did well to cling onto an effort from Sam Carrick.
The visitors built on their momentum and tallied a vital second goal three minutes into the period. Scratched for the first game, Kasperi Kapanen was looking to make an impact. Curling out from behind the net and back towards goal from the left side, he picked out Ben Smith in the slot. Smith opted for a deceptive release by quickly firing a backhand effort that somehow found its way past Williams. It wasn’t an effort with much punch behind it, and maybe was helped by a deflection off the stick of defenseman Kane Lafranchise. Either way, it was the perfect beginning to the period for the Marlies and a hammer blow to their hosts.
Toronto were shooting on sight at this point, with a trademark booming shot from T.J Brennan resulting in a rebound that fell loose in the slot, but no one in blue was on hand to take advantage.
The Marlies fired the first six shots without reply before Gauthier was called for cross checking with six and a half minutes played. Bridgeport’s powerplay only lasted 39 seconds before Williams was called for playing the puck outside the trapezoid.
Four penalties were called during the final frame, but neither team could make hay with the extra man. The Marlies were managing the best form of lead protection at even strength, controlling the play and not sitting on their advantage. Bridgeport was limited to a paltry six shots in the third period before the final nail in their coffin was applied mere seconds after pulling Williams for the extra attacker.
Connor Brown, who hasn’t stayed out of the headlines since his return from injury this season, sealed the deal with an empty net goal from centre ice.
Toronto almost made it 4-0 but Sam Carrick and Ben Smith were denied on a 2-on-1 break by a fantastic piece of recovery by a trailing Sound Tigers defenseman.
All that was left was to ensure Sparks earned a deserved shutout. In truth, it was never in doubt as Toronto looked more likely to score inside the last 90 seconds than their opponent, cruising to a 3-0 victory.
Job well done as far as the Marlies are concerned — they take a two-game lead back to Toronto and look to clinch the series Thursday evening at Ricoh Coliseum.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto were disappointed not to tally on five powerplays, but the penalty kill was perfect on three occasions.
– A shutout for Garret Sparks, who played well, but he wasn’t asked to make as many spectacular saves as Antoine Bibeau was in game one. He could do no more, however, than to record a perfect game in his first ever AHL post-season start.
– Connor Brown’s two goals gives him four in seven career playoff games.
– Kasperi Kapanen played well after getting the nod in the place of Tobias Lindberg. Whether he has done enough to stay in the team is up for debate, but it was one of his better performances of late. His assist on Ben Smith’s tally snapped an six-game pointless streak to end the regular season.
– Sam Carrick was a notable threat throughout, recording four shots for the second straight game, and he was unlucky not to open his 2016 playoff account.
– The Marlies will be looking to sweep a first round series for the fourth time in five years when Bridgeport visits Toronto for game three.
Sheldon Keefe Post Game
Marlies Player Stats – Toronto 3 vs. Bridgeport 0