The entire season was on the line for the Marlies on Friday night. Being the AHL's regular season champions meant post-season expectations were that the team would make it as far as the Calder Cup Final.
Getting swept by the Hershey Bears in the Eastern Conference Final would have been embarrassing, especially after Wednesday's disastrous 8-2 loss. The Marlies team that hit the ice last night looked much different than the team on Wednesday, and the final score proved it: a 5 goal shut-out, with William Nylander earning a hat trick.
Marlies' coach Sheldon Keefe stuck to his guns and started Antoine Bibeau in net, and he would not be disappointed with that selection. Keefe also made some slight changes to his lines, opting to use a rare 11 forwards and 7 defenceman lineup. This arrangement had Nylander playing on both of the top 2 lines. Viktor Loov was drawn in as the extra defenceman. Sam Carrick and Brendan Leipsic were dropped in favour of Frederik Gauthier.
The Marlies had an excellent first period. At times while at even strength they looked like they were on a power play, controlling the puck in the attacking zone for stretches of 2-3 minutes. Even when the Bears finally shot the puck out, the Marlies, often Nylander, would carry the puck right back in to the Bears zone, and they would attain control of the game again.
Bibeau had to come through quickly, making a nice stop on the first shot of the game, and he continued to stop good scoring chances, especially as the Marlies successfully killed off two high-sticking penalties.
The first high-stick was by Connor Brown, in what looked like incidental contact with Aaron Ness of the Bears. Long after the whistle was blown, the two started a shoving match, and a one handed push on Ness' shoulder by Brown surprisingly sent the 192 pound winger dramatically falling down on the ice. Diving aside, it was a sign of how much these two teams really don't like each other, and it was the start of a game filled with big hits and post whistle scrums.
One of the reasons for the animosity is probably Nikita Soshnikov. He was a little pest through the whole period, taking and receiving hits, but also playing well with Nylander and Colin Smith. Soshnikov was an integral part of some of their scoring chances, and had one or two of his own. A memorable moment was on the Brown penalty-kill where he blocked a hard slap-shot, then got up, chased down the puck, dumped it out, and took the opportunity to land a hard check into the glass on the same Bear who took the shot he blocked.
Rinat Valiev took the second high-stick penalty. It looked accidental, but there was definite contact. Obviously, since it was a shut out, they killed this one off too.
The first of Nylander's 3 goals was playing while playing with Ben Smith and Kasperi Kapanen. Smith was fighting for the puck behind the net and took a big check from a Bears defender, who dumped the puck out along the boards. The puck made it all the way back to the blueline to T.J. Brennan. By this point Smith had moved back up to the front of the net, so Brennan passed the puck right back to him. Smith had another tussle with the same Bears defender, and the puck popped out behind him, right to Nylander who shoots it past Justin Peters like it was an empty net at practice. Look at how simple he makes this look.
Much of the second period moved at a slower pace than the first. There were only two penalties, one by the Marlies, and one by the Bears. Each team killed them off again.
I'll jump straight to the good stuff. Again, with the period about to end, Nylander scores. First read Scott's description, then watch the video.
Nylander receives a bad pass from Carrick off his skate and one-touches it to himself to beat Peters under the bar. Uhm...— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) May 28, 2016
Looking at the video, it might have deflected off Peters' pads and then up and in the net, but the way Nylander receives the pass and shoots in one elegant motion is unbelievable.
The Marlies started the third period up 2-0. The crowd was pretty energized at this point, knowing it was possible they were going to actually force a game 5. Taunting chants of "PEEEETERRRRS" broke out, and maybe they had an impact as his meltdown had begun.
The Marlies had not had a power play goal at all through this series, but Sheldon Keefe had held firm in interviews that it was not a systemic problem, only a run of bad luck. Tonight that luck was in favour of the Marlies with three power play goals in the third period.
The first was by Josh Leivo on a play where he also earned a penalty. He crashed the net with the puck and it went past Peters. At the same time Leivo fell onto Peters after being pushed by the Bears' defender Tyler Lewington. Leivo and Lewington traded some shoves and Leivo was punched. This all happened really quickly, and it was difficult to untangle what all happened.
The officials originally did not award the goal, likely because they thought there was interference. After reviewing, they awarded the goal, but Leivo also picked up a roughing penalty. Lewington picked up both a roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. This meant that the Marlies remained on a 5 on 4 power play. 25 seconds later Connor Carrick buried the puck on a slapshot.
Then there was the third power play goal, which sealed the 5-0 win. All I will say is to watch the video and listen to the PING!
In between the second and third goals in the period there was an ugly moment in the game. The Bears Madison Bowey elbowed in the jaw. Kapanen went down on the ice and stayed there a good two minutes with the trainer.
What happened next is controversial and in the news. As Bowey was being taken to the penalty box right after the hit, he yelled something at Kapanen while he was still down on the ice. There's zero audio, but there is a direct camera view.
Did he call him a "fucking fag"? It's possible. The Star has explicitly said he used a "slur". There are other possibilities. Some think he could have said "fucking fake", meaning Bowey thinks Kapanen wasn't hurt on the hit. A Toronto Sun reporter says the Leafs are investigating.
Before getting up and skating off under his own power, Kapanen made a detour past the penalty box with some choice words for Bowey. Andrew Campbell intervened and steered Kapanen back to the bench before he crossed a line and picked up a penalty of his own. There was no update on Kapanen's condition but he did not return to the game.
Bowey ultimately was ejected for a game misconduct, and that left the Marlies on a 5 minute power play, which is when Nylander scored the previously mentioned goal.
The Marlies got their much needed win.
Keefe was pleased with the results of his modified lineup line up "Part of the reason we went with 11 forwards and 7 [defence] today was to open up a little more opportunity for some of our better players to get more ice time. [Nylander] was really the main benefactor of that, taking a lot of the extra shifts, double shifting a lot of the time, and I thought he really came to life."
Bibeau added that the team is well aware this series is still in the Bears control. "It's great to get the win, but we know we still have a long way to go."
The highlights video is below. The Marlies next game is Sunday at 3:00 PM at Ricoh Coliseum.
For more on Nylander's big night, see Scott Wheeler's post here.