There’s no place like home: The Toronto Marlies extended their post-season home unbeaten streak and staved off elimination with a 2-1 win over Syracuse on Monday evening.
It was no oil painting — far from the Marlies‘ best showing of the playoffs — but an inspired goaltending performance from Kasimir Kaskisuo gave Toronto a chance and they took advantage of a third-period power play to win their fifth home playoff game in a row in front of a packed Ricoh crowd of 6,749.
The Marlies got off to less-than-ideal start 1:50 into the game when Andrew Nielsen was sent to the box for interference. Toronto’s penalty kill stood firm, allowing just the one shot taken by the returning-from-suspension Jake Dotchin.
Chances proved few and far between for both teams back at even strength. Kaskisuo came up with a good save to turn aside Daniel Walcott on a redirected shot, while Toronto’s best opportunities fell to Trevor Moore, Sergey Kalinin and Colin Greening. Greening later turned provider with eight minutes remaining but Brendan Leipsic was denied by a blocker save from Mike McKenna.
Toronto drew two penalties in the opening frame; while the power play looked vastly improved compared to its struggles in Game 5, the Marlies could not find a way through the Syracuse penalty kill in the first 20.
It didn’t take long for the deadlock to break in the middle frame. After Toronto drew a third straight power play, Syracuse tallied first while shorthanded.
Michael Bournival escaped on a breakaway following a turnover high in the zone, and Kaskisuo chose to stay put in his net rather than engage in a loose puck race. Johnsson hustled to catch the Syracuse forward, but he couldn’t prevent Bournival from scoring his second of the post-season.
The Crunch almost doubled their lead as the penalty expired — Cory Conacher escaped down the left wing unattended and drove to the net, but Kaskisuo bounced back to bail out his team.
After a lack of discipline from Syracuse sent Toronto to their fourth power play of the game at the 5:37 mark, the Marlies finally made it count. Carl Grundstrom walked out from behind the net and tucked the puck in on a wraparound, with McKenna lost on the play.
The Crunch dominated the final 12 minutes of the second period after falling behind, but it was clear they were dealing with an inspired Kaskisuo in the Marlie net. The Finnish goaltender made 14 saves during the middle frame, the best of which came on Matthew Peca and Gabriel Dumont (x2). The second of Dumont’s scoring chances came on a late breakaway; Kaskisuo made the initial stop and somehow turned aside two successive rebound opportunities.
In-between times, Yanni Gourde struck the post, Andrew Campbell made an inspired diving play to deny an odd-man break, and Kasperi Kapanen blocked a shot that kept him off the ice until the start of the third period.
The Marlies created just two chances of note in the second half of the period — on a breakaway, Kerby Rychel was turned aside by McKenna, who then pulled off another good save on Steve Oleksy after the defenseman made a move around Dotchin in the right circle.
The final frame began with overlapping penalties, but neither team created anything of note on their abbreviated power plays.
As time passed, it became a likelier proposition that the next goal would decide the game. Both teams were struggling to manufacture offensive zone time let alone clear-cut scoring chances.
Kerby Rychel had McKenna scrambling on a quick spin-and-fire move, while Brett Findlay fired high after an excellent piece of individual play from Rich Clune set him up. That was the best look either team generated before Daniel Walcott was sent to the penalty box with nine minutes remaining.
32 seconds later, a raucous Ricoh crowd was celebrating a go-ahead marker courtesy of the Marlies’ high-scoring rookie defenseman. It wasn’t the best game from Nielsen in his own end, but after playing a little pitch and catch with Seth Griffith at the top of the circle/high slot, the Alberta native connected with a hard one-timer that found its way through McKenna with the help of a deflection.
The Marlies limited Syracuse to just eight shots through the third period and rarely looked in danger of giving up their 2-1 lead.
After McKenna headed to the bench with around 80 seconds left, Kalinin came within a whisker of icing the game but his long-range attempt toward the vacant cage struck the right post and stayed out.
Syracuse continued to press with six attackers but Kaskisuo wasn’t tested any further thanks to a shot block from Colin Greening with 30 seconds left that drew a huge cheer from the Marlies faithful.
The Marlies will now have to find a way to win a game in Syracuse in a seventh-and-deciding tilt on Wednesday.
“We still didn’t play the way we’ll need to play if we’re going to win on the road,” said Sheldon Keefe. “Today we got a little bit of good fortune and the guys were grinding until the end to keep them at one. That was good for us; it gives us a chance to go get our road game right.”
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies have now allowed the most shorthanded goals in the playoffs with four against. “A lot of their speedy and skilled forwards kill penalties; guys that are dangerous and cause problems for you at five on five,” said Keefe. “They can catch you. We knew that coming into the series and we’ve dealt with it at times. At other times, not so well.”
The Marlies have also now scored 10 power play tallies in 44 opportunities (22.7%, second of 16 playoff teams) including both of the goals tonight. “We found a way to be plus-one and we win the hockey game. Credit to the guys for staying with it.”
– Kasimir Kaskisuo made 27 saves on 28 shots for the victory. “I didn’t like the first goal,” said Keefe. “It was a breakaway but he could’ve handled it better — perhaps if he came out and played the puck for us — but he responded beautifully. We don’t get through that second period the way that we did without him… Another first-year player that is benefitting from the more hockey that we get to play.”
– Carl Grundstrom scored his third goal in just five games, with two coming on the power play. “He’s a guy that goes to the net,” said Keefe. “He’s smart and he’s competitive. He’s not afraid, so he goes to those areas… frankly, I thought he struggled through this game — it probably wasn’t his best game of the series — but he seemed to get better after he scored. These games have been real good experiences for him, and Game 7 will be another good experience for him.”
– Andrew Nielsen’s game-winner was his first career AHL playoff goal. “Neilsen is a guy who has played more and more as this series and the last series wore on,” said Keefe. “He’s earned extra opportunity. He seems to be in a nice groove. Certainly, there is a lot he can continue to work at, but — again — the longer we play, the better it is for these first-year players who get these extra experiences.”
– Seth Griffith and Cal O’Reilly assisted on both goals, taking their postseason point tallies to eight and five, respectively.
– Andreas Johnsson led Toronto with five shots on goal.
– The Toronto Marlies are 3-1 all-time in Game 7 series deciders, including a victory against Syracuse in 2008.