The Toronto Marlies’ season came to a crushing halt with a fourth consecutive away defeat in Game 7 against the Syracuse Crunch on Thursday night.

The Marlies struggled to find any semblance of their best form on the road during these playoffs, and that was the case again tonight despite Toronto holding the lead for 16 minutes of Game 7.

First Period

Syracuse put the Marlies on the back foot from the initial puck drop and earned a power play one minute into the game.

While they couldn’t make the extra man count, it was one-way traffic in favour of the Crunch, who opened the scoring a little over six minutes in. Following too many lost puck battles by the Marlies inside their own zone, Gabriel Dumont redirected a shot from Ben Thomas past Kasimir Kaskisuo.

Toronto’s goaltender kept them in the game as Syracuse poured on the pressure, which was only interrupted by an unsuccessful power play for the Marlies at the 10:34 mark.

Sergey Kalinin’s season ended sooner than his teammates’ after he went down to block a shot and left the ice clutching his right knee, leaving the Marlies (who were already without Frederik Gauthier) with just three centermen the rest of the way.

Kalinin’s sacrifice seemed to wake his team up as the Marlies finally found their feet in the final five minutes of the period. After some good hustle from Colin Greening created a chance, Kerby Rychel and Rich Clune were both denied by Mike McKenna.

Toronto then struck twice in 80 seconds to change the complexion of the game.

After Seth Griffith finished off a beautiful tic-tac-toe play involving Cal O’Reilly and Trevor Moore, Brendan Leipsic showcased some individual skill down the left wing with a curl-and-drag move around Mathieu Brodeur before firing past McKenna.

Kaskisuo was called on to turn aside Cory Conacher in the dying seconds, preserving Toronto’s one-goal advantage heading into the intermission.

Second Period

The middle frame saw Syracuse get back to their game from the opening 15 minutes, with Kaskisuo called into action just 16 seconds in.

The Marlies were floundering under constant pressure from the Crunch, barely able to clear their lines before the receiving the next wave of attack from Syracuse. The Crunch earned themselves a power play at the nine-minute mark, but they were unable to find a way past Kaskisuo despite a flurry of chances in the slot.

As the penalty was about to expire, the Marlies broke away on an odd-man rush. Kasperi Kapanen dished a perfect pass to Andreas Johnsson, who picked his head up and finished with aplomb past a diving McKenna.

It was totally against the run of play, but the Marlies led 3-1 at the midway point of the game and it could have been 4-1 had Cal O’Reilly not fired high from the slot on a feed from Seth Griffith.

That’s as close as Toronto came to putting this game to bed, however, as Syracuse proceeded to strike twice inside two minutes to level the score.

With seven minutes remaining in the period, you could’ve placed a blanket over all five Marlies skates on the right side of the defensive zone when Matthew Peca found a pinching Matt Taormina all alone in the right circle. The Eddie Shore award winner made no mistake for his second goal of the playoffs.

Syracuse then finally made a power play count with five minutes remaining in the second. Adam Erne, allowed free reign in front of Kaskisuo, tipped home a shot from Cory Conacher to tie the game at three apiece after 40 minutes.

Third Period

Toronto’s season began to slip away just eight seconds into the final frame when Peca split between Travis Dermott and Steve Oleksy off the opening faceoff, took a pass, and finished off what stood up as the game-winner.

It was the same old story from there as the Crunch totally dominated the Marlies in every facet of the game. After mustering just two shots in the second period, it took Toronto almost 15 minutes to register their second shot of the third. That came via a solo effort from Leipsic, who drew a blocker save from McKenna.

Some acrobatics from Kaskisuo kept Toronto within a single goal, but the team in front of him never looked likely to repay their goaltender.

Cory Conacher netted an insurance marker and the fourth unanswered goal for Syracuse with 1:41 remaining before Yanni Gourde rounded out the scoring with an empty-netter.

A 6-3 victory didn’t flatter a Syracuse team that was full value for the victory over the duration of the best-of-seven. For Toronto, the only regret will be not playing to their full potential during this series, but it was a heck of a turnaround season from a young team that was sitting at the bottom of the standings in January.

“This was a group that we got a lot out of. It’s a terrible feeling right now because it’s Game 7. It’s a terrible feeling because the game is over. It’s a terrible feeling because you had a lead today and let it go. But all of those things are there because we earned the opportunity and the right to be here. This is a team that could’ve given up on itself early in the season.

At Christmastime — not even early; we were half-way through — we were in last place and the guys dug in and got us back to life. That got management to believe in us and make some changes and add some people, and then we earned the right to be here. There is a lot to feel good about.”

– Sheldon Keefe following the Marlies’ Game 7 loss

Post Games Notes

– The Marlies were outshot 19-7 through the final 40 minutes of play. “For the second and third periods, it wasn’t even close,” said Sheldon Keefe. “They were the better team… the better team won.”

– Toronto went 0 for 3 on the power play, while the Crunch went one for four.

– One area of the roster the Marlies will look to address this offseason is their center depth, which was tested in this series with the loss of Frederik Gauthier and further exacerbated by Sergey Kalinin’s injury in the first period of Game 7.

“Losing [Kalinin] early presented a challenge for us, with us already being short with no Gauthier,” said Keefe. “Especially losing [Kalinin] so early, it’s going to cause an issue for you in the middle of the ice. I don’t know if we can attribute it [all] to that with our regression in our play, but it certainly didn’t help our cause.

“They got better in the second period when we got a lead and they came at us hard,” said Keefe. “We didn’t deal with it well and we couldn’t execute, so we spent the whole time in our own end as a result. It just takes that much more out of our defence and our shortened center group, who have got to do all the work down low.”

Andreas Johnsson scored his fifth of the series against Syracuse and his sixth of the post-season. The rookie forward finished as the Marlies’ leading playoff goal scorer.

A goal for Seth Griffith saw him finish the postseason as Toronto’s leading points producer with nine, while an assist for Kasperi Kapanen placed him second behind Griffith with eight points.

Rookies Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott finished the postseason with four and five points, respectively, behind the 25-year-old Justin Holl (seven points) in playoff points scoring among Marlies defencemen.

“There were some veteran people for sure, but there were a lot of young people on the team that really did a lot of things for us and played a lot and were important pieces,” said Keefe. “Even in the playoffs today, you look at the young defence of Dermott and Nielsen, and then Johnsson in his first year meant so much to our team. Trevor Moore [too]. You’ve Kaskisuo, who has to take the load in net.

“There are some older pieces on our team, but we were still generally a younger team, especially compared to the opposition.”

Travis Dermott was hard on himself after the game: “I think this series showed that maybe I’m not ready for the next step if I keep playing like this. Hopefully, I can work forward on where I made some mistakes this series and see where that takes me.”

Dermott was clearly disappointed about being on the ice for three goals against in Game 7; his giveaway along the end boards led to the 5-3 put-away goal, and he was also caught on the wrong side of the ice for the 3-2 Taormina tally in the second.

That is an exercise in hand-picking a turnover and a defensive miscue out of the pile tonight, however. There is no disputing that Dermott, after regaining his health, was instrumental in the Marlies turnaround in the second half of the season.

After the game, Keefe rightly pointed out that the team wouldn’t have been in a position to play a Game 7 against the North Division champions without his rookie defenceman.

“I think every one of our guys had more to give,” said Keefe. “I don’t think this is the right time to start picking out pieces for different players. We lose as a team here. Dermott is a tremendous young player who was a big part of us having a chance to play in a game like this.”

This was invaluable playoff experience for the 20-year-old freshman, who obviously has high expectations for himself as well as the maturity to make an honest assessment of his own game.

“[This year] has been big for me. For a first-year pro, it was everything I could’ve asked for. Great coaching, great teammates. I’ve learned more than I ever could’ve asked for. Hopefully, I can use this year going forward.

I was just focused on this year and trying to take in as much as I can… Going forward, I’m going to work as hard as I can this summer and see where that takes me. I have no expectations going into camp.”

– Travis Dermott after the Game 7 loss

– Last but not least, thanks to all of the MLHS readers who followed along this season and to those who took the time to recognize my efforts. It’s very much appreciated. I’ll be back with a few more articles to round out the season before enjoying some rest this summer.

Game Highlights

Post-Game: Sheldon Keefe