The Toronto Marlies winning streak came to an end against the Syracuse Crunch on Wednesday evening.
While the Marlies didn’t bring their best stuff, a lot of credit goes to Syracuse — one of the league’s fastest-improving outfits — for a performance worthy of the 3-1 win.
Syracuse rarely looked in danger of giving up the lead after opening the scoring midway through the opening period. A quick transition by the Crunch had Toronto floundering before former Leafs draft pick Chris DiDomenico fired home from the right circle to put the Crunch up 1-0.
Toronto’s penalty kill remained perfect on the two occasions it went to work, but the home team really didn’t generate any offense of note until the final two minutes of the first period, when Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Justin Holl and Dmytro Timashov couldn’t cash in on some looks offensively.
Toronto almost fell further behind just 25 seconds into the middle frame, but Garret Sparks denied Dominik Masin with the Marlies again floundering inside their own zone.
Chris Mueller responded by sending Timashov off on a breakaway, but Louis Domingue turned aside the five-hole attempt.
The turning point of the game came just before the four-minute mark, when Daniel Walcott lined up Timashov at the Syracuse blue line with a hit that saw Walcott go flying over top of the Marlies forward.
Timashov appeared none the worse for an ugly-looking if clean hit, but Andrew Nielsen took exception, pulling Walcott up from the ice before delivering a couple of blows to his opponent. What Nielsen didn’t realize was that Walcott had injured himself in the fall and was in no state to properly defend himself.
The officials came down hard, punishing Nielsen with two, five, ten and a game misconduct. Walcott left the ice on a stretcher with what is speculated to be a broken ankle, but he was fully conscious.
Facing a five-minute penalty kill, the Marlies did everything possible to keep the Crunch from extending their lead until the final second expired. At that point, Kevin Lynch outmanoeuvred Martin Marincin in front and recovered his own rebound to score what was officially recorded as an even-strength goal.
That was a hammer’s blow that the Marlies didn’t cope with well. Syracuse continued to carry the play after extending their lead.
Adam Erne was denied by Sparks on a breakaway, as the Toronto goaltender refused to bite before smothering the eventual shot.
In the final minute of the period, Kapanen escaped the Syracuse defense on a stretch pass from Travis Dermott but fluffed his lines in front of goal, mustering a weak effort that Domingue stopped comfortably.
Requiring a comeback to keep the winning streak alive, Toronto began the third frame with positive intent and drew a penalty in the process.
In truth, it was a poor effort with the extra man and — probably out of desperation — Sheldon Keefe threw out some players not used to power play time. It did the trick: With the power play winding down, Timothy Liljegren somehow picked out Frederik Gauthier with a cross-crease feed that evaded a maze of bodies and sticks before the big centerman eventually put the puck home via his skate.
You might have expected Syracuse to wilt, but they were much the stronger team following the game’s third goal. Poor puck management from Toronto was proving costly, and Sparks needed to make three excellent saves in the two minutes that followed to keep the Marlies within one.
A pattern was emerging as Toronto began to throw caution to the wind and were guilty of some fancy, over-elaborate plays, leaving themselves exposed to the speed of Syracuse the other way.
Despite a series of looks off the rush, Syracuse failed to add an insurance marker. However, Toronto never really threatened the net at the other end; the Crunch did an excellent job of getting bodies in shooting lanes and clearing away any second opportunities.
The Marlies were put out of their misery by Cory Conacher’s empty net goal with 57 seconds remaining, extending Syracuse’s winning streak to four and ending Toronto’s at seven.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto won all three games against Syracuse before this loss. It’s only their second defeat to a divisional rival this season.
“We didn’t play our best game, but we’ve got to give some credit to them,” said Sheldon Keefe after the game. “It’s a good team. They’re winning games and finding ways to get on the right side of it by sticking with it and getting better goaltending. I felt right from the start of the season they’re a much better team than the record shows. If they haven’t outplayed us in all four games, they’ve certainly been right there. That’s a good hockey team. They’ve given up the least shots in the league of any team despite not winning [a lot].”
– Garret Sparks posted 30 saves and could not have done much more to keep his team in this game.
– Frederik Gauthier scored his first goal of the season and also his first point since October 22.
– Andrew Nielsen could face supplemental discipline from the league, although the penalties assessed on the ice might be seen as just punishment. After the game, Keefe suggested it was called worse than it was by the officials and that the two-five-and-ten assessment was harsh.
“I saw two guys grab each other in a scrum. Nielsen gets one glove off and throws… I don’t even know if you’d call it a punch, but to me, that’s four minutes for roughing and two minutes on the other side. We’re short and we kill two rather than kill five. I don’t know where they got that from. Maybe they reacted to the injury, which didn’t have anything to do with the actual altercation.”
– A secondary assist for Travis Dermott gives him his third assist in four games; the production is starting to come along after just five points in his first 16 appearances. Along with Kasperi Kapanen, Dermott fired a game-leading four shots on goal.
– Timothy Liljegren‘s assist on the power play takes him up to seven points in his first 13 AHL games. “I think Liljy has been great on the power play for us,” said Keefe. “I don’t think he’s the issue on the power play. Despite getting a credit for a goal, it wasn’t any better today. But Liljy has been good. For a guy his age, he has stepped in, moved the puck well and he plays with confidence. He makes plays at the offensive blue line. He’s had lots of chances.”