It proved to be a tale of goaltending, special teams and missed opportunities as Toronto fell in regulation at home for the first time in 2016.
Garret Sparks had a game to forget and allowed the very first shot he faced during an opening period that was dominated by the home team.
After relinquishing control of the puck in the first couple of minutes, Hershey would score on their first foray into Toronto’s zone. Jakub Vrana driving the play and his drop pass at the bottom of the right circle found Chris Borque. The league’s leading scorer beat Sparks short-side, top shelf with a good shot but certainly not unstoppable.
The Marlies continued to own the puck and drew the first penalty seven minutes in. Far too cute for their own good, Toronto’s best chance came shortly after the penalty expired but goaltender Dan Ellis poke-checked with Kasperi Kapanen in on goal.
Shortly after, Mike Moore laid a hit on Connor Brown by the boards, even though the Toronto winger hadn’t touched the puck. Jumping in to defend his team-mate was James Martin and he dropped the mittens with Moore.
This seemed to energise the home team and fans even more, and Sam Carrick came close to tying the game with a backhand attempt. A penalty was drawn on that play and Nikita Soshnikov’s one time effort rattled off the crossbar. Tobias Lindberg then conspired to miss an easy chance as Toronto’s power play woes remain ever present.
In the final seconds of the first period Toronto were pressing hard and Soshnikov was pushed into Ellis by a Hershey defenseman, leaving them both of the former on the deck. The puck fell to Brett Findlay and his goal-bound shot was stopped by the unfortunate Russian laying on the goal line.
The shot-clock emphasised the difference between the teams after twenty minutes, the Marlies holding a 14-3 advantage but trailing where it mattered.
Sam Carrick is getting better in each game since his long layoff. Typical of his style, he battled to win possession on the half wall and tired at the end of his shift he threw the puck on net. Ellis made the save but produced a rebound for Colin Smith waiting out in front. Smith would have to wait for his first Toronto goal as Ellis redeemed himself with a terrific second effort to deny him.
The home crowd wouldn’t have to wait long for the tying goal however.
David Kolomatis doing a tremendous job to keep the puck alive in Hershey’s zone and Frederick Gauthier dished it off to Soshnikov. We then saw the very best of the Russian as he weaved his way past two Hershey players down the right, before driving to the net with another nice move and slamming the puck past Ellis. A wonderful goal from a player who continues to turn heads this season.
Rinat Valiev received a penalty immediately following the goal but seventy seconds later Toronto took the lead.
Zach Hyman and Sam Carrick out-worked Hershey inside the Bears zone, showing the determination that is the hallmark of both players. Hyman stole possession, laying the puck off to Carrick who saw his blast stopped but there was his buddy Hyman to put home the go-ahead goal on the rebound.
A short-handed goal against can often deflate a team but not these Hershey Bears.
Scott Gomez was only denied from a sure goal by a shot-block from William Nylander of all people.
It mattered little, as inside a minute later the visitors would draw level.
Jakub Vrana was allowed to spin off the left boards, beat Carrick with ease and then Justin Holl decided not to follow him as he went to the left of the goal. It was another fine shot, but Sparks was once again beaten short-side.
Hershey would reclaim the lead with 6:20 remaining of the second and it would seen the end of Sparks’ evening. An error allowed Dustin Gazley away on a breakaway chance. Toronto’s trailing defensemen weren’t ever going to catch him so you would have expected Sparks to come out and challenge the shooter. Sparks failed to do so and was so deep that he ended up in his net along with the puck that was placed perfectly between his pads.
Antoine Bibeau was called into action and immediately made a huge save on another breakaway, this time from Sean Collin after a mistake from Kapanen.
It looked as though Toronto would score with two minutes left on the clock. Findlay teed up Brown who fired only just wide, and then Lindberg seemed to miss an open net after a fabulous spin-around pass from Findlay. The defenseman may have gotten enough of a touch to deny Lindberg but it summed up Toronto’s prowess in front of goal for the most part.
Any best laid plans for the beginning of the third period were undone by Kapanen taking a ridiculous and needless slashing penalty 39 seconds in.
It almost produced a tying goal however as Valiev forced Ellis into a fine save as Toronto once more looked potent when short-handed.
With the penalty killed, Kapanen immediately went about trying to make amends, but after showing fantastic speed and puck handling as he went around the outside of the defense, Kapanen contrived to fire wide.
Hershey gifted Toronto a power play with too many men after hemming the home team in their own zone. The Bears PK units worked hard but in truth the Marlies made it far too easy for them as another opportunity went begging.
The turning point of the game came at exactly 8:32 of the final frame. Some excellent play from Toronto resulted in Valiev scoring a quite wonderful goal but it was waived off.
The reason? Sam Carrick was called for high-sticking as Valiev released his shot.
It was a very questionable call and spectacularly well sold by the Hershey player.
Those are the breaks and with one second left in the penalty Hershey tallied through Collins, a nice finish from the slot, to put the Bears up 4-2.
The Marlies never truly looked like staging a memorable comeback like we’ve witnessed in recent times and their last real opportunity came inside the last four minutes with a power play. Bibeau would be pulled but Gazley’s second goal of the game into an empty net sealed a deserved victory for the visitors.
Post Game Notes:
Toronto out-shot Hershey 39-20 and even though Dan Ellis made 37 saves, he didn’t have to be spectacular in recording the win.
Garret Sparks allowed three goals on eleven shots and could be out of favour for a little while if Antoine Bibeau performs admirably during Saturday’s game.
It was Zach Hyman’s fourth short-handed goal of the season and he leads the league in that category.
Sam Carrick led all skaters with six shots and three points in this last two games.
Nikita Soshnikov’s opening tally was his 18th of the season, now third on the Marlies in goals.
I sound like a broken record but special teams proved to be a crucial factor once more.
Toronto may have tallied short-handed but they wasted four power play opportunities of which three came when the game was still in the balance. Hershey’s tally on their third power play was the dagger for the Marlies.