The Toronto Marlies were handed a lesson to start round two on Friday evening.
With a raucous crowd behind them for the opening of this second round series, the Syracuse Crunch were better in every department and thoroughly deserved a 3-1 Game 1 victory.
As excellent as the home team was, however, the Marlies were abject in every area — special teams, even strength — outside of goaltending.
The opening period should have started with Syracuse scoring the opening goal and finished with a comfortable Crunch lead. Instead, Toronto struck first with 99 seconds played.
Matthew Peca was robbed by Kasimir Kaskisuo and the Marlies responded with a rush back the other way. Andrew Nielsen’s shot produced a rebound in front that Andreas Johnsson won a battle for before sliding it home on his backhand.
Syracuse went to their first power play of the game shortly after and would have tied it up if not for Kaskisuo. The Finnish goaltender robbed Tye McGinn on a rebound from a Peca shot and then somehow managed to reverse direction and make a left pad save to stop a deflected shot from McGinn.
The Crunch weren’t deterred and continued to carry play back at even strength. Syracuse captain Erik Condra was the next to be denied by Kaskisuo, who flashed the leather after a broken play in Toronto’s zone resulted in a scoring opportunity.
After a commercial timeout allowed Toronto to reset a little, they almost doubled their lead against the run of play. Kasperi Kapanen sped away alone, but Mike McKenna denied his five-hole attempt.
The Marlies earned a power play in the process, but it only resulted in a shorthanded break for Cory Conacher, with Kaskisuo once again bailing his team out.
A tying goal appeared inevitable and it eventually arrived with a little over five minutes remaining in the opening frame. The Syracuse power play proved too much to handle the second time around, and Condra redirected a shot from Byron Froese past a helpless Kaskisuo.
Having to kill yet another penalty, the Marlies at least finished the final 60 seconds with a little momentum. A pair of offensive face-off wins by Fredrik Gauthier resulted in Justin Holl and Kapanen testing McKenna.
Out-shot 16-6 and leaning far too heavily on Kaskisuo in the first 20 minutes, Toronto needed an answer coming out of the intermission. Conacher was gifted an early chance courtesy of a turnover, but the Marlies were better in the opening nine or so minutes of the second period.
Colin Greening and Seth Griffith combined but couldn’t beat McKenna, before Trevor Moore created an opportunity with an excellent piece of skill but made the wrong pass/shot selection.
After failing to take advantage of their second power play of the game, the shots favoured the Marlies 4-0 to start the middle frame.
The hosts’ first shot of the period came at the midway mark courtesy of a power play gifted to them by more poor discipline from Toronto. The Marlies were able to create a couple short-handed opportunities, however, with Brendan Leipsic and Steve Oleksy both forcing McKenna into action.
Syracuse finally found their legs again inside the final five minutes as Toronto began to turn the puck over on a consistent basis. On their heels following a misplay at the Crunch blue line, the Marlies never fully recovered.
Adam Erne picked out Froese in the slot and the former Marlie had time to control the puck with his skate before sending his shot in off the iron.
Almost immediately after, Syracuse defenseman Ben Thomas should have made it a 3-1 game but somehow Kaskisuo gloved his shot.
A late power play offered a glimmer of hope for the Marlies, but a series of misplays and baffling drop passes meant Toronto was barely able to set up inside the offensive zone.
Syracuse held a record of 25-1-2-1 when leading after 40 minutes of play during the regular season. That was the size of the task at hand as Toronto looked to stage a third-period comeback.
It never appeared a likely scenario, even with a Marlies power play three minutes into the final frame. Syracuse had three excellent shorthanded chances, including a 3-on-1, with Kaskisuo called on to bail his team out on each occasion.
McKenna barely saw the puck, barring Toronto icings, as Syracuse took the game by the scruff of the neck in pursuit of an insurance marker. The Marlies were barely able to clear their own zone let alone break out with possession before they again found themselves down a man.
Andrew Nielsen took his third minor penalty of the game, an aspect of his game he has to clean up going forward. A much better effort from the Marlies penalty kill kept them within one, but any sort of push-back didn’t arrive until there were five minutes left on the clock.
Kerby Rychel almost slotted home a rebound during a scramble in front before a shoulder save from McKenna turned aside a heavy shot from Gauthier.
That’s as close as Toronto came to a tying goal. Sheldon Keefe went for broke, pulling his goalie with over two minutes remaining, but Kaskisuo could only look on in vain as after Gabriel Dumont missed the empty net twice before Yanni Gourde made no mistake to seal the Game 1 victory for Syracuse.
Toronto can take some hope from their excellent goaltending performance and the fact that they were still in the game until the final moments. However, there were too many passengers in this performance, especially among the forward group.
Game 2 is Saturday night in Syracuse and the Marlies have to come up with a whole lot better if they want to level this series heading back to Toronto.
“I didn’t think we skated all game,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “Part of it is them. They were skating and clogging us up, and we didn’t do the things we needed to let our speed be on display. We played really slow all game long.”
Post Game Notes
– Toronto went zero for four on the power play, while Syracuse tallied once on five opportunities. “Our power play has been stale for quite a while here,” said Keefe. “It wasn’t very good in the Albany series and it wasn’ good today. We got out-chanced. All of their best players kill penalties, and all of the speed they bring at five on five comes on the penalty kill even more so.”
– The 27-save performance from Kasimir Kaskisuo was arguably one of his best showings in a Marlies uniform despite the result. “The game would’ve been an absolute blowout without him,” said Keefe.
– Toronto mustered just 25 shots, with Seth Griffith leading the way with four. “There were four minutes there in third where we started doing a better job of [getting bodies to the net],” said Keefe. “But we didn’t do it through most of the hockey game.”
“It’s hard to get offense in the playoffs. We learned that in Game 1 after getting shut out against Albany and we adjusted and did very well. We’re going to have to do that here now. Far too much on the perimeter.”
– Andreas Johnsson scored his second goal of the post-season.
– Experienced forwards Mike Sislo, Cal O’Reilly and Colin Greening were absent for the majority of this game. O’Reilly hasn’t been performing of late (three points in 15 games) and may find himself dropped for Game 2.