“We let an opportunity get away from us tonight.”
Those were the post-game words of Sheldon Keefe after the Toronto Marlies failed to clinch the Calder Cup despite dominating the opening 25 minutes of play.
Avoidable mistakes, losing the goaltending battle, and some suspect officiating all played their part, but Texas Stars were able to force a Game 7 because ultimately they took advantage of their chances and avoided the type of egregious breakdowns giving up clear-cut scoring opportunities that plagued the Marlies.
Both teams could have scored inside the opening minute, but Colin Greening was denied by Mike McKenna and Garret Sparks turned aside Travis Morin in tight.
The Marlies earned the first power play of the game and generated three chances of note — McKenna turned aside Trevor Moore and Chris Mueller from just above the blue paint, as well as a backhand swat attempt from Miro Aaltonen after a nice give-and-go with Dmytro Timashov.
The Marlies largely dominated the opening 20 minutes, firing 12 shots without reply in the final 13 minutes, but too few were from dangerous enough areas and McKenna wasn’t inconvenienced enough by traffic in front of him.
The middle frame began in similar fashion, with the Marlies unable to capitalize on their chances. Mason Marchment was tied up in front by Jason Dickinson to deny him in the slot following a rush from Calle Rosen. A spin-around backhand move from Timashov was met by a good save from McKenna, who should’ve been tested again shortly after but Adam Brooks missed the target when alone in the right circle.
The turning point of the game occurred just before the seven-minute mark when Martin Marincin was taken out in the corner of his defensive zone. After the officials allowed play to continue and Marincin unwisely sat on the ice arguing the non-call, Justin Dowling set up Curtis McKenzie for his 11th goal of the playoffs.
The Marlies almost immediately fell behind by two but caught a break when Matt Mangene’s effort hit the post instead of the wide-open net.
Despite never fully regaining their composure, the Marlies top line did generate an excellent scoring chance to level the score, but McKenna pulled out a wonderful last-ditch right pad save to rob Carl Grundstrom in tight.
That looked like an even better save with five minutes of the period remaining when Texas doubled their lead. A blown forward clearance from Sparks handed the puck straight to Dowling, who corralled the puck with his skates and set up Travis Morin for an easy tap-in.
The Marlies were in serious trouble after the Stars capitalized on their next opportunity just two minutes later. Austin Fyten out-battled Greening — skating casually towards the defensive zone with the puck in the neutral zone after taking an awkward pass from Liljegren — before scoring in alone on Sparks, who appeared shell-shocked by this point.
There should have been another penalty called on the Stars in the build-up to the 3-0 goal, but it didn’t excuse the Marlies for some lackadaisical play.
The Marlies could have reduced the deficit to just two heading into the final frame but another chance went begging when Moore was unable to corral a pass during a 2-on-1 rush.
If any team could come back from a three-goal hole, it’s the Marlies, who looked like they might make it interesting early in the final frame.
A perfectly-placed snapshot from Rosen from the top of the left circle found its way through traffic and past McKenna with under two minutes on the clock.
With the momentum in their sails, the Marlies drew a power play after a great drive wide by Pierre Engvall, but they proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot and more or less put the game to bed with a shorthanded goal against. Rookie Sheldon Dries escaped on a breakaway and beat Sparks with a backhand effort to put Texas ahead 4-1.
Sheldon Keefe opted to switch goaltenders at that juncture, with Calvin Pickard called into action.
Another Marlies power play was only thwarted by McKenna, who made a whole host of excellent saves among a flurry of bodies around the crease, with Toronto’s hopes of clinching in six games fading quickly despite majorly out-shooting the Stars.
Keefe pulled Pickard with six minutes remaining and Justin Holl netted a rebound from low in the right circle, but it was temporary respite as a messy sequence in the Marlies zone with the net vacant allowed Texas to secure a 5-2 victory and force a seventh game with an empty-netter.
Post Game Notes
– Tuesday’s crowd of 8,783 was the largest ever for a Marlies game at Ricoh Coliseum, surpassing the record of 8,219 set in Game 2 last Sunday.
– Garret Sparks gave up three goals on 13 shots in what was an uncharacteristically sub-par performance from the Marlies goaltender. Sparks admitted the second goal was all on him and he failed to make saves at other key moments. But he’s bounced backed from adversity all season long and endured something similar in the opening round against Utica. When asked what the confidence level is to bounce back in Game 7, Sparks responded, “extremely high.”
– This wasn’t all on the goaltender, however, as Toronto turned the puck over with regularity (especially in the second period), which cost them dearly against a team as opportunistic as Texas. It’s become too familiar of a sight in this series for the Marlies to allow the Stars in behind them for clear-cut breakaways; the Marlies thrive on a system that allows their defense the green light to be aggressive, but the communication breakdowns have to be remedied ahead of Game 7.
“We gifted them goals,” said Keefe. “We carried the play for long chunks of the game, but we gifted them goals and they didn’t gift us anything… I thought we got a little bit too comfortable with our game and how easy it might be, and then the game shifted. They’re too good and too opportunistic for that. They make you pay.”
– The Marlies power play continues to be a major difference maker in a negative way in this series. While they generated some good looks and goalmouth scrambles, they went zero on four attempts tonight, sit 1/16 overall over the series, the shorthanded marker at 3-1 was a backbreaker, and clean entries remain an issue for the units.
– The Marlies are 3-2 all time in Game 7s. The two losses occurred on the road and all three wins have been on home ice. A good omen?
– Calle Rosen netted his third goal in two games and his fourth of the finals. With an assist on the second goal, Rosen takes his playoff point total to eleven (5-6-11), which ranks him third among all defensemen.
– Andreas Johnsson recorded an assist on Toronto’s opening goal for his 21st post-season point, further extending his franchise record for points in a playoff campaign.
– Travis Dermott featured after being a game-time decision with an upper-body injury, but he was a shadow of the player we’re used to seeing. We’ll have to await word on his availability for Game 7.
One game for a championship and we’re going to bring our best Thursday night.”
– Captain Ben Smith
– Game 6 Lines: