The Toronto Marlies left the PPL Center frustrated as they let a third-period lead slip and were undone by a dubious late call from the officials on Saturday.
The opening frame was dominated by Lehigh Valley as the Phantoms looked hungry to bounce back from a disappointing defeat the previous evening against the Providence Bruins.
Toronto hung tough, killing an early penalty before opening the scoring against the run of play at the nine-minute mark when an offensive zone win ended with Tanner MacMaster snapping a shot past Mike McKenna from above the hash marks.
Kasimir Kaskisuo was certainly in the zone; no save of his 13 stops in the first period was better than the flash of the leather that turned aside David Schlemko.
A Phantoms goal appeared only a matter of time, however, and it arrived inside the final four minutes of the period. The Marlies were chasing shadows as Tyrell Goulbourne leveled the game.
The Marlies created far more offensively in the middle frame, out-shooting the Phantoms 19-10, but they gave up three Grade-A chances in the process.
The Marlies power play was nullified by Lehigh’stop-ranked penalty on three occasions; they were only able to exert any kind of pressure on their second man advantage, with some near misses and the excellent Mike McKenna keeping them off the board.
The Phantoms were denied on two odd-man rushes, with Kaskisuo stonewalling former Marlie Byron Froese and first-period goal scorer Goulbourne, before Lehigh’s best chance came on a breakaway. A turnover in the neutral zone allowed David Kase to escape in alone, but again Kaskisuo stood tall.
With deadlock still intact through the second period, the next goal was clearly going to be the crucial one for both teams.
The Marlies began the third period with a pep in their step and were driving the majority of the play through the opening 10 minutes.
Rasmus Sandin nearly capitalized on a shortened Toronto power play, but the veteran McKenna robbed the rookie with a great glove save.
The Marlies power play finally got its act together on its fifth opportunity, with the effective duo of Jeremy Bracco and Chris Mueller combining for the veteran’s 26th goal of the season on a gorgeous pass by Bracco.
A 2-1 lead with 10 minutes left is never safe, but it’s something Toronto has done far too frequently this season: Quickly concede after scoring. Lehigh netted twice inside two minutes to put themselves 3-2 ahead with seven minutes left.
A defensive zone turnover led to the tying marker as Kaskisuo made three incredible saves but was given no help as Lehigh swarmed the net, ending in Goulbourne’s second of the game.
Sam Jardine was then left-footed by fellow defenseman Reece Willcox down the right wing and the intended cross-ice feed to Connor Bunnaman appeared to deflect in off of Timothy Liljegren.
The Marlies showed plenty of endeavour in their attempt to tie the game, but they rarely forced McKenna into action until Kaskisuo was pulled for an extra attacker. The gamble paid off as Mueller expertly tipped a shot from Bracco to level the score at 3-3 as the Marlies appeared to have salvaged at least a point.
That was until the officials intervened inside the final 30 seconds of regulation with a highly-dubious call. In what had been an overly physical game at times with neither team giving an inch, Mueller was tabbed for the slightest and most accidental of interference penalties away from the puck in the neutral zone.
Toronto fell apart on the resulting penalty kill, and Chris Conner had the simplest task of tapping the puck home alone at the backdoor. It was debatable whether the goal should’ve stood with the clock reading zero, but it was decided the puck crossed the line with 0.5 seconds left and the Marlies were left rueing their luck.
Post Game Notes
– Playing his 700th career game, Chris Mueller (1-1-2) recorded his sixth straight two-point game and extended his goal streak to seven games.
“Last year, I thought he as a player that took a while to get comfortable around here but once he did, he really made his mark on our team,” said Sheldon Keefe. “He was a big part of pushing us from just an upper-echelon regular season team to being a team that could thrive in the playoffs. He’s such a huge part of really pushing and challenging our team to take a step through last year’s playoff. He’s won before and he won last year. It’s no coincidence.”
– Rasmus Sandin extended his point streak to six games (1-7-8) with a secondary power play assist.
– Jeremy Bracco recorded his 20th multi-point game of the season with two assists.
“[Mueller] gets to the spots where goals are scored and Bracco is a guy who can find him, so it’s been a real nice match there,” said Keefe.
– Hudson Elynuik made his Toronto Marlies and AHL debut tonight. “I thought he played with a lot of speed,” said Keefe. “We like a lot of the things we see in him but haven’t been able to see a whole lot of game action. Even with the Growlers, he’s missed a lot of times with injuries there and missed time through Leafs training camp. But he’s got a lot of speed; really skates and gets on the puck. He and Scott Pooley made an impact today in limited ice time and opportunity. I liked what they brought.”
– Steve Oleksy returned to the lineup, with Kristians Rubins making way.
– Saturday’s lines: