The Toronto Marlies have struggled mightily when trailing this season, but they somehow found a way to erase a two-goal third-period deficit against one of the league’s best teams to secure a crucial 5-3 victory in their fight for a playoff berth on Monday at the Scotiabank Arena.
This was just the second time in 21 attempts that Toronto has pulled out a victory when trailing after 40 minutes this season.
“Credit to the players for digging in,” said Sheldon Keefe. “That is a lot of adversity against a very good team. We’ve seen at different times this year when we’ve gotten down like that it’s gotten ugly. Today, the guys didn’t let it happen.”
The Marlies could not have gotten off to a worse start, with the first two shots of the game both finding the back of their net.
Syracuse struck on the power play just 3:08 in through Cory Conacher’s one-time slap shot from the top of the right circle and then doubled their lead just three minutes later. Following a strong cycle that the Marlies couldn’t handle and with a maze of traffic around the crease, Alex Barre-Boulet redirected the puck home to make it 2-0 Syracuse.
Kasimir Kaskisuo had little chance on either goal, but in search of a wake-up call, Sheldon Keefe pulled him in favour of Michael Hutchinson, who managed to stop everything he faced for the rest of the opening frame.
Toronto gained a foothold in the game thanks to a Calle Rosen power play strike, but they were fortunate to find themselves trailing only 2-1 after 20 minutes. The Crunch failed to take advantage of a second man advantage and missed out on some other great chances, including a 3-on-1 break that resulted in Ross Colton hitting the iron.
The Marlies were only a little more competitive in the middle frame, although the fourth line showed some sparks of life. Connor Ingram was called into action early to deny Tanner MacMaster, while Jeremy Bracco really should have tested the Syracuse netminder following a feed from Colin Greening.
As much as the Marlies were slowly growing into the game, the Crunch looked like the more dangerous team offensively and they re-opened a two-goal lead 15 seconds before the midway mark.
Former Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe made the Marlies top line and third pairing look foolish as he skated a circle around the five Toronto skaters before attempting to score shortside on Hutchinson. The Marlies netminder made the save, but Verhaeghe picked up his own rebound and scored on the wraparound attempt.
The Marlies wasted their second power play, with Ingram barely tested, and the closest they would come to chipping away at the deficit in the middle frame came through Griffen Molino. On a cross-ice set-up from Josh Jooris, the luckless Molino — who already hit the iron once over the weekend — struck the frame of the goal and Toronto trailed 3-1 after 40 minutes of play.
There have been some notable comeback victories in Marlies history, but with the problems this current iteration has faced this year, taking even a point from this game appeared like a bridge too far against a highly-talented Syracuse team.
It was almost a catastrophic start to the third period, but Syracuse failed to capitalize on a defensive zone turnover, which was perhaps the break that Toronto needed. Whatever was said in the locker room seem to have the desired effect as the Marlies played with a chip on their shoulder the rest of the way and found the kind of intensity that was lacking in the previous 40 minutes.
A second power-play goal kickstarted the comeback at the eight-minute mark — Adam Brooks banged home the loose puck after Bracco’s shot generated a rebound off of Ingram.
Bracco was single-handedly trying to take control of the game, albeit he wasn’t always making the correct decision in possession. He chose to pass when shooting was a better option during an odd-man rush, but on a second break, he found the pinching Sam Jardine, who forced Ingram into a good save to keep the Crunch ahead for the time being.
The tying goal arrived with seven minutes remaining and started with Brooks winning an offensive zone faceoff. The puck eventually found its way to Bracco below the goal line, where the winger’s pass toward the front of the net was skillfully tipped home by Brooks for his second goal of the game.
With the game all square, Toronto’s eventual victory wouldn’t have been possible if not for a huge save from Hutchinson with four minutes left in the game. Syracuse cut Toronto to shreds with a series of tape-to-tape passes, but Hutchinson stonewalled Verhaeghe in alone on goal.
The Marlies rewarded their goaltender with the game-winner just 90 seconds later.
After Steve Oleksy found Michael Carcone with a breakout pass, the winger headed down the right wing and ran out of room. Pierre Engvall took possession, turned, and drove towards the hashmarks before beating Ingram with a wired wrist shot.
Trevor Moore’s empty-net goal then secured the two points that ensure Toronto cling onto the fourth spot in the North Division for the time being.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies improved to 3-1-0 versus Syracuse this year with the victory. The final two games of the season series will be played in Syracuse this weekend.
– Calle Rosen recorded his best single-game points haul of the season with a goal and two assists. He’s now up to 43 points on the year (7-36-43) and continues to lead all AHL defensemen in league scoring.
– Three assists for Jeremy Bracco, who stepped up big for the Marlies in the third period, put him third in AHL scoring with 53 points (15-38-53) in 52 games.
– Adam Brooks notched his second two-goal game of the season and now sits with 13 goals in 40 appearances. With Chris Mueller out of action, Sheldon Keefe has moved the centerman to the front of the net on the power play, a position he occupied in junior, and he buried his first of the night from there in tight on the man advantage.
“It’s a chance for him to play on the first unit and get more opportunity, and that’s a big part of him getting comfortable and feeling like an important piece,” said Keefe.
– Pierre Engvall’s 14th goal of the season was his first game-winner. I’m not convinced about his long-term prospects as a center, but with Toronto’s current predicament, he’s filling in admirably while learning on the job.
– Michael Hutchinson posted 27 saves for the victory in what was a bounce-back performance for him after struggles on the road recently.
– Two assists for Michael Carcone might just be the confidence boost he needs after recording just a single point in his previous five.
– Sheldon Keefe spoke highly of Timothy Liljegren‘s performances — and the pairing of Sandin – Liljegren as a whole — since jumping in the deep run after returning from injury.
“That was as close to a playoff game as we’ve seen in terms of the pace and the competitiveness and the quality of the opponent,” said Keefe. “For Liljegren, that is three games in four days in three different cities and he’s played a lot of minutes. We played with five defensemen for the most of the game in Springfield and I was happy to see him be comfortable and confident. I thought he made a lot of plays.”
– Martin Marincin was absent through injury, while Andreas Borgman is out with an undiagnosed injury.
– Monday’s lines: