There is much soul searching in store for the Toronto Marlies.
A catalogue of errors was bad enough, but the manner of this defeat, in which the players simply gave up in the third period, was absolutely unacceptable.
The opening period of play gave no indication that a mauling of considerable proportion was in the cards.
Both teams shared some offensive zone time before the visitors opened the scoring three minutes in after a long-range shot from Aaron Ness generated a big rebound off of Antoine Bibeau. The goaltender should have done better, but the Marlies defense had gone AWOL, allowing Dustin Gazley all the time in the world to score on the second attempt.
It really should have been 2-0 not long after, but Jakub Vrana failed to make the most of the opportunity all alone in front of the Marlie net.
Toronto responded by tying the game up at the six-minute mark. A hardworking Connor Brown regained possession, allowing Stuart Percy to slide the puck down to Mark Arcobello below the goal line, where the centreman delivered the perfect pass to Josh Leivo crashing the net.
Roll forward 123 seconds and the Marlies had their noses in front. After a spell of play spent hemmed in their own zone, Toronto released the pressure through Ben Smith. Instead of dumping the puck clear, Smith found his namesake Colin with a terrific outlet pass, sending him in all alone on Peters. Colin Smith went bar-down glove side to the delight of those crammed inside Ricoh Coliseum.
Toronto drew a penalty near the halfway point of the period, with the best chances coming on the delayed portion of the man advantage. Arcobello fired just wide before Rinat Valiev rang his shot against the iron. The Marlies were only able to set up once during 5-on-4 play, which resulted in Brendan Leipsic sending his one-timer from the right circle wide of the target.
14 minutes into the period, a second straight powerplay went to the Marlies after enforcer Liam O’Brien hammered William Nylander from behind. Nylander had the first chance, but should have shot with space in the slot before his intended pass to Leipsic went awry.
Late on in the powerplay, Brown was slashed when looking to score on a rebound, setting the Marlies up with 19 seconds of a two-man advantage. Just as O’Brien set foot out of the box, Nylander rang a shot off the crossbar. Leipsic was the next guilty man to pass instead of shooting from a good position, looking for Leivo before the chance went begging.
Toronto was almost made to rue those missed opportunities with 11 seconds left in the opening frame. A turnover in the midst of a line change left the Marlies high and dry, but Zach Sill’s shot hit the post and stayed out.
Hershey certainly came out ready in the second period, forcing Bibeau into two saves inside the opening 23 seconds.
Toronto’s fourth powerplay of the game followed shortly, but — bar one effort from Leipsic — it was a feeble effort with the extra man.
The Marlies slim lead evaporated back at even strength in what was a hammer blow for the home team. Leivo coughed the puck up in the neutral zone and Madison Bowey wasted little time delivering possession to Chris Bourque. With not much else on, Bourque let a wrist shot go from the top of the left circle that Bibeau should have stopped but beat him five-hole.
The Marlies replied with one good chance for Brown after good work from Leivo behind Peters’ cage, but the majority of the action came in the remaining five minutes of the second period. Arcobello’s line was providing some of the best opportunities offensively, but he tried to get too cute in finding Leivo despite having a clear sight of the net himself.
Bibeau’s confidence looked shot as he juggled a weak shot almost into the path of an incoming Hershey forward, but on the next rush he robbed Jakub Vrana, who was allowed time and space after yet another Marlie defensive breakdown.
A rare mistake and giveaway by Peters ended with the puck on the stick of Connor Carrick jumping into the play, but the Marlies’ leading scorer failed to hit the target.
The Bears, on top as the period came to a close, opened up a 3-2 lead heading into the intermission. It was another entirely avoidable goal as Erik Burgdoerfer’s high shot from the point shouldn’t have presented much of an issue. Bibeau’s sight of the shot was slightly impeded by Connor Carrick, and the goaltender made a blocker save that provided a second opportunity to Zach Sill. In acres of space in the left circle with the Marlie defense AWOL once again, Sill was able to compose himself and find the net via the inside of the post.
There was still time for Arcobello to hit the post on a short-side effort, but the puck stayed out and Toronto trailed after two periods.
Down 2-0 in the series and trailing 3-2 in game three, you would have expected Toronto to come out like a team possessed in the third period, especially considering the period began with another man-advantage opportunity. In truth, what followed was a gutless 20 minutes shorn of resolve and desire as the team appeared to mail the game in.
First, a turnover from T.J Brennan allowed Sill to lead a short-handed rush. Sensing weakness in goal, there was a shoot-on-sight policy from the Bears by now, and Sill’s high shot on Bibeau bounced off the goaltender and through his pads before trickling across the line.
That spelled the end of Bibeau’s night as Garrett Sparks entered the fray. Things turned for the embarrassing after the Bears scored shorthanded for the second time on the same penalty. Percy was the guilty party in turning the puck over to Chris Bourque, who made Sparks look silly in all alone to make it 5-2 for Hershey.
It was now a buffet of goals on a silver platter for Hershey, who tallied twice more inside a minute. Toronto failed to clear their own zone before Travis Boyd turned provider and found Vrana, who beat Sparks with an effort the cold goaltender should have stopped.
That sparked a mass exodus inside Ricoh Coliseum before Hershey tallied again on the powerplay through the first goal of the post-season for Christian Djoos. Sparks seemed to bat it into his own net with his arm.
After four goals against with only 6:12 played of the third period, you could hear a pin drop in the Ricoh. Both teams would have been happy to call it a night at this point, with neither looking likely to convert on a powerplay opportunity for each.
An eighth goal for Hershey was gift wrapped as if it were Christmas come early. Kasperi Kapanen ended up as the last man back and he handed the present to Vrana, who easily beat Sparks blocker side, with the goaltender way back in his crease and down too early on the play.
The game finished with several more penalties and altercations but no further additions to the lopsided scoreline. Toronto could have used that fire in their bellies back when the game was still in the balance. Now they’ll need a miracle to keep their season alive.
Post Game Notes
– After a fairly good effort in the opening period, Toronto were nowhere near the level required from the moment the puck dropped in the middle frame. Hershey are no world beaters and aren’t as good of an all-around team as Albany, but the Marlies have been incapable of sustaining anything near a 60-minute performance to this point. The difference is that the Bears own the offense that can make you pay if you consistently hand them gifts.
– Hershey has also dictated the special teams battle during this series. The Bears are 3 for 11 on the powerplay while killing all 10 of Toronto’s opportunities with the extra man. Coupled with scoring twice shorthanded, Hershey has taken advantage of the Marlies gaping inefficiencies in this area.
– Goaltending is arguably the Marlies’ biggest issue at this juncture, and where they go from here is anyone’s guess. Sparks has not looked good at all in relief, while Bibeau’s confidence appears shot. It’s a real throw of the dice, but Kasimir Kaskisuo could be the way to go for game four. The Marlies made a habit during the regular season of stepping up their game when a new goaltender was placed between the pipes (think Madore/Massa), and maybe it could provide the spark the team sorely needs. It’s certainly a risk given he’s a rookie fresh out of college, but all three goaltenders have uncertainty attached to them right now. There is “no book” on Kaskisuo for the opponent, and he fared well in two starts at the backend of the season in front of an undermanned Marlies team.
– Toronto’s defense was terrible in this outing and hasn’t been at its best throughout the series. Viktor Loov may well get a look, as could David Kolomatis or perhaps even Travis Dermott, but as a group they have to be better from 1-6.
– To stay alive, Toronto has to win four straight games, beginning Friday night back at Ricoh Coliseum. Three teams in AHL history have come back from trailing 0-3 to win a playoff series, the most recent of which was the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins against the Providence Bruins in 2013. Hershey have suffered defeat from this position back in 1989, when Adirondack Flames came back to win four consecutive games.
– It’s going to have to be a case of one game at a time for the Marlies, who have shown during the regular season that they are capable of extensive winning streaks. Toronto won four or more consecutive games on eight occasions. Obviously, there are no second chances left for a Toronto Marlies team that has to find answers quickly to the many questions outlined above heading into Friday’s Game 4.
Sheldon Keefe Post Game
Marlies Player Stats — Hershey 8 vs. Toronto 2