The Marlies step on the ice tonight with their chance to advance to the Calder Cup Final on the line. Down three games to none, the team is facing its greatest challenge of the season. Further, they are coming in of a disastrous rout on Wednesday night.
You can read Christopher Hatzitolios full recap of that game here.
To sum it up quickly; ahead 2-1 at the end of the first period, the Marlies lost the game, 2-8. The Bears scored seven unanswered goals, two of them short-handed. The Marlies again did not score on the power play.
If you want to watch the carnage unfold, the highlights package is below.
Interviewed on Thursday, Keefe laid out plainly the mood after the game, "If you get beat up like that, they feel it, they know it."
The Marlies can obviously defeat the Bears with the right game play. The OT loss in game 2 could have as easily been a win. There were some dangerous scoring chances before the Bears scored. A look at the shot on goal tallies shows the Bears haven't stifled the Marlies offence. So why have the shooting percentages dropped off so much from the regular season?
There aren't handy stats published like for the NHL with which one could compare the regular season and playoffs to find changes in possession, shot suppression, etc., which could give a clue.
We do know the Bears are obviously a great team to have made it to the conference final, so there should naturally be a drop in all those high-danger scoring chances they had in the regular season. Could another part of the change be that Marlies were been beating up on lousy teams in the regular season?
I recall in the regular seeing season players like Zach Hyman being able to stand right at the net waiting for a pass, while opposing defenders don't pressure him, or even keeping their back to him, not seeing where he is moving until it's too late. Those kind of easy plays are certainly not happening in this series, and at this level.
Of course you shouldn't invest too much faith in my eye test, but that is sort of like something Keefe warned about as they approached the playoffs, saying they were going from having games that are "too easy" to ones against "teams desperate to win".
Now the Marlies are desperate to win, so, hopefully, they can turn the tables and make it now their advantage.
A difficult decision for Keefe is which goalie he will start this game. After sticking with Antoine Bibeau through most of the first two rounds Keefe started Sparks this series, and started them each once, with both playing in the Wednesday night game. Neither Bibeau nor Garret Sparks is an obvious choice over the other, assuming one does not have some mild injuries of which we are unaware.
It's not an enviable decision for Keefe. It will be one of the things people remember about the game most if they lose. "Why didn't he start the other goalie?" And if they win, well, the question will then be bumped out to the next game on Sunday.
So what is the Marlies attitude going in to tonight's game?
Rich Clune thinks at this it's up to each player to dig down and find that part of themselves that can will the win to happen.
"Friday night is going to roll around and we'll see who has the things you can't teach. Sheldon and the rest of the staff here have taught us everything about how to play the game, x's and o's, and all this development and everything like that. It's the best program I've ever seen hands down," Clune said.
"Friday will be a chance to see who has some heart, and who has that thing that you're born with."
You can watch the whole interview below, and I have to say he definitely comes across as a calm and strong presence for the team.