“A championship-calibre response.”
Those were the post-game words of Sheldon Keefe after the Toronto Marlies finally blew the door open against the Texas Stars defense with a comprehensive victory in Game 5.
In this tightly-contested series — each prior encounter was decided by a single goal — the Marlies were the side that took advantage of its opportunities to send themselves back to Toronto with two chances to claim the franchise’s first-ever Calder Cup championship.
With the backing of a fervent home crowd, the Stars were fast out of the gate and put the Marlies under the pump inside the opening 90 seconds.
The Marlies bent but didn’t break, however, before their playoff talisman broke away to open the scoring. Brett Regner whiffed on an intended shot from the right side of the blue line and Andreas Johnsson immediately pounced to knock the puck clear of the Texas defenseman. With a burst of speed, Johnsson raced past Regner and the covering Dillon Heatherington before delivering an impeccable backhand finish past Mike McKenna.
It took Toronto just 47 seconds to double their advantage, and it was the kid line who delivered again in another impressive performance from the young trio. Mason Marchment and Trevor Moore exchanged a series of passes before a bad angle shot from the right circle by Adam Brooks produced a rebound that Moore capitalized on for his sixth of the postseason.
Johnsson will feel he should have scored at the eight-minute mark but fired just wide of the target when alone in the slot, and the Marlies had to settle for the two goals through the opening 20 minutes.
A sharp glove save from Garret Sparks to deny Jason Dickinson meant the Stars weren’t able to halve the deficit heading into the intermission, and now the pressure was firmly on Texas to come up with a response.
The Marlies — 27-0-1 when scoring the first two goals of a game heading into the middle frame — came close to extending their advantage, but McKenna held onto a shot from Miro Aaltonen following a set-up from Johnsson just 70 seconds in.
Texas threatened through Reece Scarlett, but his shot clipped the outside of Sparks’ right post. A subsequent faceoff win presented the opportunity for Gavin Bayreuther to let fly from the blue line and his seeing-eye shot through traffic found the net, giving the home team hope with four minutes played.
The Marlies weren’t unnerved by having their lead cut to 2-1 and struck back just over three minutes later — a response Keefe later called, “championship calibre.”
It was led by a rookie in Timothy Liljegren — he put in arguably his best performance of the post-season to date — who instigated an attack after bailing out Andrew Nielsen in the defensive zone. The rookie defenseman lost possession in the Texas end the puck backed off to the blue line before firing towards the net after the Marlies recovered the puck.
Chris Mueller bore the brunt of the shot, but the puck fell kindly at the forward’s feet before he teed up Colin Greening in the slot to make it a 3-1 game.
The Marlies then struck a fourth 62 seconds later with a highlight-reel calibre goal. Calle Rosen entered the offensive zone as the trailer on the play before taking a perfect tape-to-tape pass from Johnsson. Rosen dangled his way past Justin Dowling at the top of the circles before firing top shelf past McKenna.
Now leading 4-1, the Marlies were firmly in control and Sparks only needed to make one save of note inside the final five minutes of the period to turn aside Dowling.
Johnsson was denied on a breakaway just before that chance for the Stars, but the fifth wasn’t long in arriving for the Marlies, with Calle Rosen stepping to the fore again.
In a brilliant individual effort, the defenseman went end to end down the middle of the ice past every Texas player in his path before beating McKenna with a low shot far side.
Landon Bow replaced McKenna to begin the third period and it appeared to give Texas a boost to begin the third period, but Sparks again came up with the save when needed, this time to send Austin Fyten’s shot high into the netting.
The result was never in doubt from that moment on, and the Marlies added a sixth when the top line combined, with Carl Grundstrom applying the finish on an odd-man rush.
Sheldon Dries replied with a consolation goal for the Stars by scoring on a rebound before Texas was denied a third after Travis Morin’s effort was correctly called off for a high stick.
After their best performance of the 2018 playoff campaign, the Marlies now stand on the precipice of a championship heading back to the Ricoh Coliseum with a 3-2 series lead.
Fourteen down, one to go.
Post Game Notes
– With the win, the Marlies are yet to trail in any of their four playoff series and have only been pegged back by Utica (once) and Texas (twice).
“We knew coming here for three games was going to be a real challenge,” said Keefe. “We didn’t get the second one, so you’re going into the third one just knowing how much it means… We got the two out of the three and were close to getting all three. With a little more luck, we maybe could’ve had the second one as well, but to get the response here today feels real good.”
– Game 5 marked the eighth occasion in the 2018 playoffs that the Marlies have scored four or more goals in a single game. After being held to five goals in their previous three games, the coaching staff and the players finally figured out a way to break down the Stars’ team defense.
– Andreas Johnsson recorded a goal and two assists to give him 20 playoff points (8-12-20), making him the league’s leading post-season scorer.
“When your best player gets a breakaway early in the game and scores, it’s a good sign of what is to come in the game,” said Keefe.
After firing seven shots to no avail in game four, Calle Rosen found the net twice on three attempts in this game. Luckless through the regular season, it’s all coming around now at the right time for Rosen, who has hit the twine four times through the playoffs and is second among all defensemen in goals scored.
“Great speed, great initiative to jump up at the right times,” Keefe said of Rosen and Holl. “Two guys that have the legs to make a difference in how they skate. Some nights it works out where the difference shows up on the scoresheet, but a lot of nights it shows up just in terms of keeping pucks out of our end and moving pucks up the ice and getting pucks to our forwards in the right spots in the offensive zone.”
– It was a two-point game (1-1-2) for Carl Grundstrom, but more impressive was his overall performance. After some struggles early in the series, this is the rookie’s biggest test so far in North America and he was able to step up when called on.
– Travis Dermott was a late scratch (considered day to day) and that might have posed a big problem. However, the response from Toronto’s defensive core was excellent, and leading the way was Timothy Liljegren, who was outstanding. The rookie responded like someone well beyond his age and experience level in what was also the biggest test of his career to date.
– Andrew Nielsen stepped in for Travis Dermott and put in a solid performance considering it was his first competitive action since May 6.
– Game 5 Lines: