The record after five games in this series is three losses on the road in Syracuse, and two wins, both at home in Toronto.
It’s a recurring theme from Marlies players and Coach Sheldon Keefe that they aren’t playing their game when they visit Syracuse. Pinning down exactly why is a difficult question.
Saturday’s game started with a strong opening by the Marlies; a great first ten minutes of play where the Crunch could hardly generate a shot on goal or get through the Marlies defence. But by the end of the first period, it was obvious the Marlies’ ability to control the game was beginning to deteriorate. In the second period, things fell apart.
The starting goalies were not changed from Wednesday’s game in Toronto, where the Marlies dominated. While Kristers Gudlevskis finished that game for the Crunch after Mike McKenna was pulled from the net, McKenna was back to start this game. Kasimir Kaskisuo was back in net for the Marlies, backed up by Antoine Bibeau again. Garret Sparks is still sidelined with an injury, specifics undisclosed.
The Marlies’ lines were largely unchanged from the previous game.
Leipsic - Greening - Moore
Grundström- O'Reilly- Kapanen
Johnsson- Kalinin - Griffith
Rychel - Findlay – Clune
Campbell - Holl
Dermott - Oleksy
Wrenn - Nielsen
Kasperi Kapanen set a high tempo for the Marlies early on in the game, generating the first scoring chance on a breakaway, but a Crunch defender in hot pursuit disrupted him just enough at the last moment to make it a relatively easy save for McKenna.
The Marlies did continue to control a lot of the play in the first ten minutes, but Kaskisuo still did had to come up with some big saves. Less than five minutes in, he had to make his first major breakaway shot stop on Cory Conacher. Conacher and his teammates came back quickly for another round of shots, and Kaskisuo continued to hold them off.
Seth Griffith followed up with a play at the other end that swung momentum back to the Marlies. A pass from Andreas Johnsson led to a scoring chance which McKenna thought he stopped, but the puck was actually still loose. Griffith got it back and made another attempt, but it didn’t go in.
However, two minutes later, Steven Oleksy scored the first goal of the game, and put the Marlies up 1-0. It was the first time the Marlies had scored the first goal of the game since Game One. It was a nice goal too, generated by a pass from Brett Findlay, whom it appears McKenna was expecting to shoot the puck, not pass it. Findlay is on the third line, called in to replace the injured Frederik Gauthier, along with Rich Clune and Kerby Rychel; they have been meeting expectations in this series.
That goal was the end for the Marlies scoring in the game. They certainly had more chances, but McKenna managed to stop in total 26 of their 27 shots on goal. From this point on, my game notes really highlight a rapid shift in momentum and control of the game.
Right at the half-way mark of the first period, I wrote down how some great passing by Byron Froese and Conacher was keeping a Crunch attack alive long after the Marlies should have cleared the puck out of their zone. I noted they often even eluded speedster Kasperi Kapanen. They moved the puck around so fast and accurately between them at times it was like they were threading the eye of a needle.
Matthew Peca was first on the board for the Crunch with a little over 8 minutes left in the first period. He was left all alone in front of the net and got it past Kaskisuo.
Grundstrom was sent to the box with three minutes left in the period, but the Marlies killed it off, and the period ended tied 1-1.
The whole tenor of the game seemed to change, and the Crunch took control. The goals started coming quickly, like this one by Vermin, which left Kaskisuo confused while a puck was loose in front, not unlike what happened to McKenna in the first period.
Right after this, ex-Marlie Froese had a scoring chance.
The surge continued for the Crunch, through what was the first of a few of several instances where the officials handed out the first of several simultaneous minor penalties to both teams, this time to Oleksy and Yanni Gourde, both for slashing.
The amount of odd matching calls for four-on-four hockey in the game did not endear the officials to Keefe. “I didn’t like a lot of the four-on-four, I think it’s just a ridiculous call, especially in playoff hockey. I mean what’s the point. Five-on-five, four-on-four, let’s just play the game. I think it’s just a cop out from the officials point of view.”
Keefe wasn’t the only one confused by the officiating. The home crowd of Crunch fans broke out into “refs you suck” chants several times during the game. No one seemed clear as to what in this game was the line of where they would or would not call the most simple penalties.
All that being said, the Crunch continued to score, adding another in the second period from Kevin Lynch.
Adam Erne had another chance shortly after that, but Kaskisuo made the stop.
The Crunch’s sharp passing and ability to generate chances continued to shine. The Marlies were on the power play to start the third after Gourde took a minor penalty following the final whistle of the second, but Jonathan Racine took control and scored a short-handed goal.
You could sort of feel a win was in the bag given the electric reaction and energy of the crowd at that point.
Trevor Moore once again stood out as the Marlies player fighting for a comeback, regardless of the time on the clock. He appeared to get more ice time as time the game drew to a close, but his line simply couldn’t get the puck on the net. They had only six shots-on-goal in the third, despite two power-play opportunities.
The Crunch top line of Michael Bournival, Yanni Gourde, and Cory Conacher had multiple scoring chances in the back half of the third period, but Kaskisuo did make more big stops.
With 5:30 left, Keefe made the choice to pull Kaskisuo. It didn’t work. With 3:38 remaining Gabriel Dumont put one in the empty net, and that was it. 5-1 is your final.
The Marlies play Game Six of the series Monday night in Toronto. If the lose, their Calder Cup Playoffs run is over. If they win, they will be back on the road for a final Game Seven in Syracuse on Wednesday night. Keefe elaborated “we can’t rest on the fact that we’re going to be at home and things are going to be fine for us.”
Note that the infamous Jake Dotchin of the Crunch has now completed his suspension, and is eligible to play in Monday’s game. It is not yet clear if he will be back given the performance of his replacement, Racine.
The Hershey Bears are now up three games to two in their series against the Providence Bruins. The winner of that series will face the winner of the Marlies-Crunch series in the AHL Eastern Conference Final.
Meanwhile, the AHL Western Conference has already settled its division finalists. The San Jose Barracuda and the Grand Rapids Griffins will play out the conference final starting with back-to-back games next weekend.