The Toronto Marlies took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final despite blowing an early two-goal lead on Saturday at the Ricoh Coliseum.

Clinical finishing and timely goaltending from Garret Sparks got the job done despite rustiness playing a role — coming off the long layoff following the Round 2 sweep — in the opening 40 minutes.

First Period

The Marlies controlled the first 45 seconds before giving up a 2-on-0 scoring opportunity, but Sparks was on hand to rob Chris Connor on a backdoor play.

After Chris Muller had a chance to open the scoring on a partial breakaway and drew a slashing penalty, Toronto made make the extra man count: In the “bumper” spot in the middle, Miro Aaltonen redirected a pass from Andreas Johnsson past Alex Lyon to break the deadlock with almost seven minutes played.

From the restart, a bad turnover at the offensive blue line from Justin Holl presented a breakaway chance for Mike Vecchione, but Sparks came to the rescue again.

Ben Smith was denied on a good individual effort at the nine-minute mark before the Marlies found a second goal with 12:03 on the clock.

Timothy Liljegren pinched in to deny a clearing attempt on the right boards,  resulting in Johnsson and Aaltonen combining yet again, with the Finnish centerman finding the twine with a low shot to beat Lyon for the second time in the period.

The advantage was halved heading into the intermission after the Phantoms made hay on their first power play resulting from a Mason Marchment roughing penalty. Philippe Myers launched a long-range slap shot that found the inside of the far post, giving Sparks no chance.

Second Period

The Marlies‘ fragile lead evaporated just 35 seconds into the middle frame. After Dmytro Timashov lost control of the puck in the offensive zone and Timothy Liljegren fell attempting to back up and defend the rush, Lehigh broke away on an odd-man opportunity. Travis Dermott went down too early defending the odd-man situation, and Tyrell Goulbourne put the finishing touch on a well-constructed passing move to tie proceedings at two apiece.

Timashov nearly made up for his error on a terrific shift from his line, while Aaltonen was denied of a hat-trick by a good save from Lyon. The Marlies drew a penalty on that latter opportunity, but a poor call from the officials saw the home team lose their discipline.

Less than a minute after Johnsson had wrongly been sent to the box, Travis Dermott joined him following a double minor high sticking infraction and Lehigh capitalized once more with the extra skater.

After breaking in down the left wing with Holl a step behind after stepping up in the neutral zone, Connor fired a perfect shot over the shoulder of Sparks and in off the iron to give Lehigh a 3-2 lead.

The Phantoms were now on top for the first time and looked more likely to add to the lead. The turning point of the game arrived with 3:36 remaining of the second period when the Marlies found a way to level the game back up against the run of play.

It was a beautiful move initiated by Smith and Holl, who broke into the offensive zone in possession on the right side before dropping to Timashov, who combined with Mueller before Smith applied the killer touch on the tic-tac-toe.

The period finished with a line brawl near the benches, and the Phantoms were lucky to get away with offsetting penalties after Johnsson was mugged by Danick Martel.

Third Period

Instead of looking for physical retribution, Toronto composed themselves and paid back Lehigh in the perfect manner by producing a fantastic third-period performance.

The kid line helped the Marlies restore the lead with a hard-working shift following an o-zone faceoff in the left circle. Mason Marchment and Trevor Moore won their puck battles before delivering it to Adam Brooks, who sniped home top-shelf, short-side on Lyon with a release that was on and off his stick in a hurry.

The Marlies utterly dominated in every facet from that moment on, but they were unable to grab an insurance marker. Credit goaltender Alex Lyon, who made several good stops including denying Carl Grundstrom in tight before robbing Mueller with an incredible save.

An initial shot from Timashov was blocked by Lyon before Smith grabbed the rebound and sent it wide to Mueller, who looked to have the floundering goalie beat only for Lyon to flick his right leg up in desperation to somehow keep the puck out of the net.

Lehigh failed to really test Sparks until they went for broke by pulling Lyon with 2:30 remaining. From that point on, it was one-way traffic and Toronto iced the puck on two occasions to relieve the pressure.

With 30 seconds left on the clock, Sparks pulled off a sharp double stop to ensure the Game 1 victory — the Phantoms engineered a chance for Colin McDonald standing alone in front, but Sparks robbed him twice in quick succession to ensure a 4-3 win for the Marlies, who are yet to lose a Game 1 during this Calder Cup playoff campaign.

Post Game Notes

– A sixth straight playoff victory for the Marlies means they remain perfect on home ice in the postseason with a 6-0 record. Toronto’s victory came despite the special teams battle, scoring once from two attempts on the man advantage, while Lehigh netted twice on four opportunities.

– A brace of goals for Miro Aaltonen, who was unlucky not to net a hat-trick. After a slow start in the Utica series, the Finnish forward has seven points (3-4-7) in 10 playoff games.

Andreas Johnsson kept up his impressive form with another pair of assists to give him 10 points (3-7-10) in six outings. A lone assist for Trevor Moore was his 10th point of the playoffs (3-7-10). The two are now tied for second in AHL post-season scoring. With Johnsson appearing in just six games after rejoining the team after the Leafs‘ playoff exit, the Swedish winger currently leads the AHL playoffs in points per game (1.67).

Adam Brooks netted the game-winner for just his third point (2-1-3) of the playoffs. His line with Marchment and Moore was excellent in the third period and was trusted late in the game during the 6-on-5 situation.

“This series is going to be a four-line series,” said Sheldon Keefe. “They are a very deep team. The Utica team we played was deep. This is a deeper group. We are going to need to use everybody if we are going to be able to play at a high level all the way through. I thought the Brooks line gave us some really good shifts and got better as the game wore on. Obviously, Brooksy scored us a huge goal and they were able to play consistently through the third period for us, and that really helped our cause.”

– Game Two goes Sunday at 4 p.m. EST. Keefe said the team will make a decision on whether Calvin Pickard will start or if Sparks will play through the back-to-back closer to game time.

– Sunday’s lines:




Game Highlights

Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe