In a best-of-five first round, losing a second straight game in Albany was an unthinkable prospect for Toronto.
After getting shut out in Game 1, the Marlies got the bounce-back performance they needed with a six-goal outburst on Saturday night.
Sheldon Keefe threw a pre-game curveball with his lineup, handing Pierre Engvall his Marlies and North American debut. If it was an intended a wake-up call to the rest of the squad, it had the desired effect — Toronto struck 2:56 into the game on the power play.
After taking a pass from Seth Griffith as he crossed over the blue line, Kerby Rychel stepped into the left circle and fooled MacKenzie Blackwood with a wobbling puck while using Steven Santini as a screen.
A second power play for Toronto proved fruitless and Andreas Johnsson was unfortunate to be called for goaltender interference at the 11:28 mark as the game took on a physical tone early.
The Marlies penalty kill was perfect on its first call to action and went back to work shortly after. Miles Wood was lightly tripped by Rinat Valiev but made no attempt to change course and went crashing into Sparks, who was sent flying back into his net.
Toronto’s goaltender was none the worse for wear and it appeared as if the Marlies would hold onto a 1-0 lead through 20 minutes after killing their second straight penalty. However, a momentary lack of concentration from Toronto allowed the hosts to tie the game with 1:35 remaining in the first.
Three Marlie forwards were caught on the wrong side of the play as Albany moved the puck nicely on the breakout. Blake Pietila carried possession down the right side and placed a perfect pass to Kevin Rooney, who slipped in at the back door past Steve Oleksy. A deft top-shelf finish gave Garret Sparks little chance.
Eleven seconds later, Toronto regained the lead.
Sergey Kalinin chased down a dump-in behind the Devils net and won the battle for possession. Turning back toward the goal line, the veteran forward threw the puck on net from a bad angle and somehow snuck it past Blackwood to restore a one-goal Marlies lead at the intermission.
Justin Holl got caught on the wrong side of his man and took a holding penalty 24 seconds into the middle frame, but no damage was done before Joe Blandisi negated the man advantage under a minute later.
Back at even strength, Toronto struck at the 4:15 mark through an unlikely source.
Frederik Gauthier took a pass from Holl the defensive side of the red line before gaining a head of steam through neutral ice and breaking into the offensive zone. There wasn’t much on for the centerman, so he decided to let fly with a quick wrist shot. It was a surprise to everyone when his effort snuck by Blackwood‘s blocker to give Toronto a 3-1 lead.
Holl set up the fourth goal in similar fashion, finding Colin Greening with an outlet pass. After faking a shot, Greening skated around Josh Jacobs and perfectly placed his shot over the glove of Blackwood from the left circle.
That was the end of the night for Albany’s rookie goaltender, who was pulled with more than half the game remaining just two days after recording a shutout.
With Ken Appleby now in between their pipes, Albany responded with their second goal.
Cal O’Reilly couldn’t settle the puck down to the left of Spark’s net and was stripped of possession by Blake Coleman, who kicked the puck across the crease. John Quenneville only needed to apply a finishing touch to draw Albany within a pair.
It proved just a blip as Toronto responded with a solid game in front of Sparks, allowing just seven shots on net during the second period.
Toronto made their former defenseman Viktor Loov pay for a reckless boarding penalty at the 16:09 mark of the middle frame. The goal was created by a moment of brilliance from Kerby Rychel, who leapt to catch the puck to the side of the net after an intended pass from O’Reilly was deflected high. Dropping the puck to his stick, Rychel produced a perfect no-look reverse pass into the slot for Andreas Johnsson, who made no mistake.
The physicality ramped up throughout the encounter and came to a head a minute before the intermission. With Johnsson already in the box for holding, Albany crashed the net hard and already-frayed tempers were lost, with Sparks again the intended target. Blandisi was the main culprit, jumping Justin Holl from behind after engaging with Brendan Leipsic. Somehow Blandisi was assessed a roughing minor while Leipsic was handed four minutes worth of penalties for cross-checking and roughing.
Now down by two men, Toronto was able to survive the first 51 seconds before the buzzer sounded.
Kasimir Kaskisuo took over the Marlies’ net for the final frame. As Sheldon Keefe later explained, it seemed to be more about protecting Sparks against Albany’s antics than it was any sort of serious injury.
The Marlies certainly rallied behind their back-up goaltender, allowing just one shot on net, which Kaskisuo met with a fine glove save.
Timely offense was the key to victory for the Marlies, who effectively killed off any thoughts of an Albany comeback with a sixth goal following all of the overlapping penalties.
Justin Holl was once again involved as he carried the puck down the right side and across the blue line. Holl cyled the puck along the back wall to Gauthier, who used his body to open up space before sending a perfect feed in front for Trevor Moore to direct home from the slot.
The Marlies never looked in any danger of relinquishing their lead, allowing just three shots against in the final frame, although Kaskisuo came up with a good save with eight minutes remaining.
It was all about maintaining their composure now for Toronto, as Albany looked to send a message for Game 3 with some underhanded tactics.
A late 5-on-3 power play for Toronto saw Andrew Nielsen strike the iron while Engvall was given some extra ice time on the man advantage. The Marlies players seemed desperate to give the debutant a chance to score, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Both teams now head to Toronto for up to three games at Ricoh Coliseum with the series tied at 1-1.
Post Game Notes
– Frederik Gauthier recorded his first pair of points in the AHL playoffs, having gone scoreless last year.
– Colin Greening tallied just the second AHL playoff goal of his career, despite having won a championship with Binghamton in 2011. April 17, 2011 was the date of his first Calder Cup goal.
– A three-assist game for Justin Holl, who I flagged as a possible X factor for his offensive contributions off of the blue line this playoff.
– Kerby Rychel set the tone with his opening goal, driving to the net on the power play to create the opening. It gave Albany something to think about after largely keeping Toronto to the outside in Game 1. The Devils struggled to deal with his physical play throughout, which is the brand of hockey the Marlies require of him going forward in the postseason.
– Andreas Johnsson could have been a hat-trick hero given a little more luck in front of goal. A pair of double minor penalties slightly tarnished what was an otherwise superb performance.
– Cal O’Reilly hasn’t been the dominant force expected since his move to Toronto. He was invisible in Game 1 and not much better in Game 2. Responsible for the second goal against, it’ll be interesting to see if he starts game three in Toronto.
– Pierre Engvall showed why Sheldon Keefe was happy to hand him his debut in such a key game. He handled himself well in the physical battles and provided some nice touches in possession. Overall, he did no harm to his chances of playing the next game.
– Toronto won the goaltending battle by a country mile. On the whole, Garret Sparks did well to handle himself under a tonne of provocation from Albany. He made 16 saves and could do nothing about the two goals against. Kasimir Kaskisuo showed poise coming in as relief in the middle of a 5-on-3 penalty kill.
Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe
Game Sheet – Toronto 6 vs. Albany 2