The Toronto Marlies made good on home-ice advantage on Wednesday evening, winning a second consecutive at the Ricoh Coliseum to even their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Syracuse Crunch.
With the series now tied at two apiece and the momentum swinging in their favour, the Marlies will look to gain a stranglehold on the series on Saturday in Syracuse.
After an evenly-played start to the game, Syracuse benefited from a slice of luck just before the five-minute mark. A bouncing puck in the slot hit Seth Griffith in the skate and fell kindly for Adam Erne, who netted his second goal of the playoffs.
The Marlies came up with the perfect response just 66 seconds later. A strong forecheck from Kerby Rychel and Rich Clune recovered possession before Clune looked for Brett Findlay in front. The pass bounced into the path of Rychel, whose shot produced a rebound right in the wheelhouse of Clune. The Marlies fan favourite finished on the doorstep and ruffled a few Syracuse feathers with an exuberant celebration.
A confident-looking Marlies side drew a penalty at the 7:31 mark and took the lead on the first power play of the game. Toronto recovered possession in the offensive zone three times over before Kasperi Kapanen settled the play down and sent the puck to Rychel down low. The left winger faked the goalie off of his post before chipping a backhand attempt in off of the back of Mike McKenna from a bad angle.
After the Marlies penalty kill stood firm on its first call to action, Toronto continued to carry the play back at even strength. The opening frame finished with a flurry of activity, including a second power play goal that extended the Marlies’ lead.
Kasimir Kaskisuo denied Cory Conacher on a shorthanded rush on one of just six saves from the Finnish netminder in the opening frame before the Marlies found a third unanswered with 3:36 remaining. Trevor Moore was the architect, setting up Cal O’Reilly at the back post and swinging behind the net. The centerman fluffed his shot but the rebound fell kindly for Moore behind the goal line, where the rookie managed to bank his effort in off of McKenna.
Late in the period, Greening fired a shot off the far post with McKenna beaten while Justin Holl rang his effort off the crossbar after a faceoff win. Sergey Kalinin almost made it a 4-1 game before the buzzer but Toronto had to settle for a two-goal lead through 20 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, Syracuse switched goaltenders to begin the middle frame, with Kristers Gudlevskis replacing the struggling Mike McKenna.
Gudlevskis could have been picking the puck out of the net two minutes into his night had Jonathan Racine not made an incredible defensively play to get a piece of the puck on a three-on-one break for Toronto.
30 seconds later, the Marlies turned the puck over up the wall, Slater Koekkoek went D-to-D, and Ben Thomas stepped into a shot from the point that beat Kaskisuo top shelf with the aid of a screen in front.
Syracuse had carried the play in the first half of the middle frame, but Toronto responded to the goal against in the proper fashion. Steve Oleksy, Carl Grundstrom and Brett Findlay were all turned aside by Gudlevskis while Andrew Nielsen should have hit the target from the middle of the slot with half a net to aim at.
Syracuse generated a pair of scoring opportunities in search of a tying goal, but Daniel Walcott missed the target on a rebound from the back wall before Conacher failed to capitalize on a horrible turnover from Toronto in the middle of their defensive zone.
The Marlies finished the second period on the power play, but they were too cute and didn’t test Gudlevskis as the clock ran down.
The remainder of the man advantage carried over into the final frame, but Toronto failed to set up the zone.
Six minutes into the third, an insurance marker looked imminent on Toronto’s fourth power play of the game, with Syracuse’s penalty killers scrambling. The man advantage was cut short, however, due to one of the softest interference penalties you’re ever likely to see in the playoffs. Andreas Johnsson, who was competing for the puck inside the Crunch zone, couldn’t believe the call.
The Marlies remained composed and comfortably killed the shortened Syracuse man advantage.
Sheldon Keefe would have been pleased with the way his team clogged up the neutral zone in the third period, negating the team speed of Syracuse and preventing clean entries against. Forced to dump the puck in, the Crunch won their fair share of battles deep inside the Toronto zone but the Marlies did an excellent job of keeping the Crunch to the outside and clogging up shooting lanes.
With an offensive zone draw with 2:10 remaining, Syracuse pulled their goalie and went for broke. There was little panic in Toronto’s game, although they missed a couple of opportunities to kill the game off with an empty netter.
Despite winning the final draw of the game with 17.3 seconds remaining, the Crunch couldn’t force Kaskisuo into a save and Toronto held on for the 3-2 victory.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto limited Syracuse to under 20 shots on goal, outshooting the Crunch 29-19.
– Special teams were the difference in Game 4. Toronto went 2 for 4 with the extra man, while taking just two penalties of their own, with one coming while on the man advantage (a weak call on Andreas Johnsson). The Marlies discipline was excellent in this game as they turned the other cheek under frequent provocation.
– Rich Clune’s goal was his first in the playoffs since his memorable Game 7 winner last Spring against Albany. “It’s good to see him get rewarded,” said Keefe. “Obviously, things didn’t go well for us the last time he played for us, and this was a chance for him to get back in for another crack at it. To score shortly after they made it 1-0 was big, and to have it be Dicky is good for us… we kind of got rolling after that and took over the game.”
– Kerby Rychel, who isn’t playing at 100% health in this series, ended a three-game slump with a two-point, four-shot effort in Game 4.
– The fifth assist of the playoffs for Seth Griffith gives him his sixth point through eight games.
– With his assist on the Rychel power play goal, Kasperi Kapanen joins Justin Holl as the Marlies leading post-season scorer with seven points.
Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe
Game Sheet – Toronto 3 vs. Syracuse 2