The Toronto Marlies had a checklist to meet heading into a do-or-die Game 4.
They needed their best players to be their best players, and their goaltending needed to be a whole lot better than of late. Both of those boxes were ticked as Antoine Bibeau shut out the Bears while William Nylander struck three times to secure a blowout victory in Game 4.
Sheldon Keefe rung the changes after a calamitous game three, deciding to go with seven defensemen, with Brendan Leipsic and Sam Carrick making way for Frederik Gauthier and Viktor Loov.
Toronto began the opening period with the intensity of a team on the brink.
Antoine Bibeau settled his nerves by making a decent first save on Madison Bowey 21 seconds in before watching the Marlies take control of the period from there.
Due to the seven defencemen arrangement, William Nylander was being double shifted with Colin Smith and Nikita Soshnikov. His first shift set the tempo, although it was Zach Hyman who almost opened the scoring. Viktor Loov and Stuart Percy combined to set up Hyman in front for what looked to be a tap-in, but the puck skipped over his stick at the vital moment.
Despite controlling the first ten minutes, Toronto weren’t able to find a way past Justin Peters and wound up on the first penalty kill of the game. After a debatable high sticking called on Connor Brown, the Marlies received a much-needed break when a shot from Jakub Vrana clipped the crossbar.
Hershey failed to register a shot on net during their opening powerplay, but they almost scored back at even strength. Bibeau was alert to Zach Sill’s wraparound attempt, denying the former Toronto man from scoring for the fourth time in the series.
The Bears were back to the powerplay with six minutes remaining as Rinat Valiev was unfortunate to be called for high-sticking when following through on a shot. The Marlies penalty kill held firm once again and kept the Bears off the scoreboard.
Toronto hadn’t created much since the first half of the period, but a long-range shot from T.J Brennan had Colin Smith sniffing for a rebound, inevitably drawing a big scrum in what proved a far chipper game than the three beforehand. After Brennan ended up in the box along with Erik Burgdoerfer, it was the visitors who owned much of possession during four-on-four play.
Hershey’s best chance of the period came about with 67 seconds left when Ryan Stanton was robbed by Bibeau in tight, much to the delight of the home crowd.
After the Marlies lost an offensive zone faceoff, they managed to keep the pressure on the Bears, eventually forcing a turnover that fell to Brennan at the blue line. His shot became tangled up in the legs of Colin Smith and a Hershey adversary before the puck dropped free in the slot. Nylander was in the right spot at the right time, and a quick release from the Swedish forward gave his team a much-needed boost heading into the intermission.
This game wasn’t always pretty, especially during the middle frame.
Toronto created the better looks for the most part and tested Peters inside the opening three minutes. The line of Leivo-Arcobello-Brown produced the first two shots of the period while Zach Hyman was forced wide on an attempted backhand effort on a partial breakaway.
Nylander looked certain to score his second of the game, but Peters denied the effort by getting a small piece of his glove on it to send the puck high. A relentless Nylander then nearly benefited from crashing the net after terrific work from Rich Clune, but Hershey’s defense held him at bay.
Bibeau saw little action during the second period but made two crucial saves, the first coming with almost six minutes on the clock. A shot from Bowey at the point was redirected by Ryan Bourque in front of the net and Toronto’s goaltender did incredibly well to stay with the play and hang onto the puck.
Peters was certainly keeping his team in the game and produced a wonderful stop to keep the scoreline 1-0. From below the goal line, Ben Smith teed up Kapanen on the doorstep but Peters threw out his right pad to frustrate the Finnish forward.
Bibeau’s best stop of the night followed on what was a broken play by the Bears. A shot fired from the point bounced off Sean Collins in front and provided the Hershey forward with a prime second opportunity with Bibeau unsighted and slightly out of position. In a save out of desperation, Bibeau threw himself toward the loose puck just in time to smother the effort and frustrate the Bears once more.
Leivo drew the first penalty of the game for Toronto, but the Marlie powerplay remained ineffective early.
Things nearly took a turn for the worse after Brennan made a highlight reel move through the Bears defense, but — somewhat in frustration after losing control of the puck — he slashed the stick of Peters. That unnecessary action negated the man advantage and handed Hershey almost a full two minutes of powerplay time. Despite a few good looks, Toronto were able to survive again and finished the period strongly.
Arcobello, who was looking to shoot on sight throughout the game, saw his effort produce a huge rebound off of Peters pads but the puck wouldn’t fall for any Marlies player driving the net.
The best passage of play from Toronto in the second period led to them doubling their advantage 85 seconds before the buzzer. The Marlies really worked their opponents with a host of quick passes and terrific movement before Connor Carrick found some time and space in the middle of the offensive zone and dished off to Nylander. It was the worst pass during the passage of play, but Nylander controlled the puck with his left skate before firing through the legs Aaron Ness and past Peters before the goaltender could readjust his position.
Up 2-0 with 20 minutes to play, Toronto could ill-afford to take their foot off the gas. Hershey had shown before they were capable of coming back in this series and an early goal for the Washington affiliate would have given the game a different complexion.
Nylander was once again flying and almost combined with Ben Smith a minute into the period.
Nikita Soshnikov is obviously feeling a little healthier and he enjoyed getting under the skin of the Bears players in this game. The Russian ended up in the box with Burgdoerfer, producing the second spell of 4-on-4 hockey. Once again it was Hershey who dominated possession of the puck with the open ice, but Toronto came close through a blistering shot from Justin Holl that only just whistled past the far post.
Back at five-on-five, Kapanen drew a penalty from fellow rookie Vrana and it proved to be a turning point at the five-minute mark. Percy, who has looked more comfortable with the puck offensively in recent outings, took a shot with traffic in front. Peters made the stop, but Leivo was on hand to put home the rebound on the second attempt.
Cue all hell breaking loose: Leivo was pushed on top of Peters by Tyler Lewington and the goaltender responded by punching Leivo square in the face. After the officials got in between, the result was a second straight powerplay for the Marlies and they struck again with the man advantage.
Swift movement of the puck unhinged Hershey before Connor Carrick whistled a shot from the left circle that beat Peters via the inside of the post. After two goals in 25 seconds, Toronto were looking like the regular-season Marlies.
Hershey was frustrated and it manifested itself in a totally needless and reckless play as Bowey lined up Kapanen along the boards and elbowed the Toronto forward in the head. It took him a while, but thankfully Kapanen finally rose to his feet and had words with Bowey, who appeared to respond with a homophobic slur. A five-minute major and game misconduct penalty was assessed to the Hershey defenseman, who could find himself in further trouble for the offense and possibly the slur if proven guilty by video evidence.
Peters pulled off some more great saves while his team were down a man but could do nothing once Stanton took another penalty, leading to a 5-on-3 powerplay for Toronto. Nylander’s slapshot from one knee found its way into the net for the hat trick.
After a delighted Ricoh crowd sent hats flying onto the ice, the only question left was whether Bibeau could claim his first ever professional postseason shutout. The Quebec native was made to work for it as Toronto went down a man with 2:13 remaining, but a glove save to deny Vrana sealed the deal as the Marlies lived to fight another day.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto’s five goals equalled the amount tallied during the first three games of the series.
– Toronto were 3 for 5 on the powerplay after going scoreless in ten previous occasions during the series. The penalty kill was flawless the four times it was called on.
– This was the first career AHL hat trick for William Nylander, who was on fire in his best performance of the playoffs to date.
– Antoine Bibeau only had to make 18 saves, but the majority of those came when the outcome was still in doubt. Sheldon Keefe was vindicated in his decision to name his goaltender early and put Bibeau straight back into action with a chance to respond.
– T.J. Brennan’s four assists tonight tied a Marlies franchise record for a single playoff game. They were his first helpers of the post-season after recording five goals.
– A two-point game for Connor Carrick, whose seven goals tie Connor Brown for the team lead while 17 points put him atop the postseason scoring race.
– Josh Leivo has scored in back-to-back games and is now riding a three-game points streak. His 12 points are second to only Connor Carrick.
– Mark Arcobello is also riding a three-game point streak after as many games without registering on the scoresheet.
– Kasperi Kapanen did not return to the ice after the Bowey incident.
Sheldon Keefe Post Game
Marlies Player Stats — Toronto 5 vs. Hershey 0