A four goal blast enabled the Marlies to overcame a dogged Sound Tigers team in Bridgeport.
In front of a somewhat disappointing announced crowd of 3567, it was the home team who were the better team during the opening twenty minutes.
In fact the underdogs would hold a deserved one goal lead after a first period in which they out-shot their more fancied opponents 20-12.
The warning signs were apparent early as Bridgeport gave as good as they got in the opening three minutes and tested Antoine Bibeau. Given the start in game one ahead of Garret Sparks, Bibeau’s best save during that spell was to deny Sebastian Collberg.
Bridgeport’s strong fore-check and work rate was causing Toronto problems and led to a giveaway with four and a half minute minutes played. Bibeau again was sharp, this time to turn aside rookie Michael Dal Colle.
Anton Williams in net for the Sound Tigers was forced into his best save seven minutes in, holding on to a tipped effort from Zach Hyman.
Williams next fine save came after an individual piece of brilliance from Nikita Soshnikov.
Picking the puck up deep in his own zone, the Russian forward blew by two opponents down the left wing before dropping a pass back to Rich Clune.
Yet to score a playoff goal in his AHL career, Clune watched his low one-time shot turned aside.
At exactly 11:30 of the opening period, the home team would strike the opening marker.
T.J Brennan turned the puck over to Justin Florek and the Michigan native was in alone on net and gave Bibeau no chance.
Hyman tried to respond for Toronto but Williams made a sprawling save to his right to smother the effort, on the Marlies tenth effort on net.
The visitors were a little fortunate not to end the period down by more than a single goal, as Ben Holmstrom chipped an effort just wide of the post on a second opportunity, with Bibeau struggling to make his ground.
That was followed by consecutive power play opportunities for the hosts, who struggled to produce anything of note on the first occasion. The second though was a different matter as Bibeau had to cling onto some long range efforts through traffic. He also had to be razor sharp to stop former Marlie Matt Finn, who fired a booming slap shot and then Dal Colle on the rebound
As the buzzer sounded, a shot from T.J Brennan that may have been redirected, found the net, but was clearly not scored in allotted time as the review would show.
Toronto would then trail 1-0 after twenty minutes and they needed to step it up a few gears to get into this game.
Perhaps it was nerves or surprise at Bridgeport’s level of play.
Whatever the issue may have been, it was certainly solved during the first intermission.
Josh Leivo heading to the box 39 seconds into the second period wasn’t ideal but the Marlies killed their third straight penalty, this time without allowing a shot on net.
Finally able to get their possession game going, Toronto drew their first power play of the game with 4:09 on the clock.
It would take just 27 seconds with the man advantage to tie the game up and in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
The play developed on the left side, resulting in Connor Carrick letting fly and tipping the puck in front of Williams was Brennan. By fault or design, it didn’t matter as the defenseman atoned for his earlier error with an excellent piece of play in the crease to draw Toronto level.
You could feel the momentum shift as Toronto found their feet and Bridgeport were forced back on their heels. Brendan Leipsic came close in front before being bowled over when looking to bang home a rebound and then Ben Smith fired high from a great position.
It mattered not as exactly four minutes after scoring their first goal of the game, Toronto took the lead.
Battling behind the Bridgeport goal line, the Marlies kept the puck alive thanks to Ben Smith. He offloaded to Sam Carrick who sent the puck up the left wall to William Nylander, who had to corral possession after a bad bounce.
The Swedish sensation was only just inside the blue line but immediately let fly with a snipe shot Toronto fans have come to love, and the puck flew past Williams and into the net.
There would still be a couple of turning points before Toronto would take the game away from Bridgeport.
A fourth power play for the home team would result in Dal Colle striking the post and the goal judge prematurely calling a tying marker for Bridgeport.
The replay cleared showed the puck hit the post flush and bounced straight back to the grateful Bibeau and Toronto still held a slender lead.
With six minutes of the period remaining, Soshnikov was caught in possession at the Bridgeport blue line by Florek.
The Bridgeport forward thought he was away on net alone but Soshnikov fought and clawed his way back to enable Bibeau to claim the loose puck.
A second Toronto power play of the period would prove fruitless but it proved insignificant as the Marlies struck two late goals.
Soshnikov was sent away down the right side by a fine pass from Connor Carrick.
He had Nylander to his left as support but used him as a diversion before ripping home short side from the slot to make it 3-1 with 17 seconds to play.
If that wasn’t enough then a fourth goal with 0.3 seconds remaining really was the dagger in the heart of the home team. Mark Arcobello with a delightful outlet pass to Connor Brown, who had a step on the Bridgeport defense. His low shot was past Williams in the blink of an eye and the game was as good as won with one period to see out.
After allowing Bridgeport just five shots in the middle frame, the Marlies would follow suit in the third as they shut down the Sound Tigers.
The hosts had two good chances inside the opening seven minutes but were unable to capitalise on either.
James Wright was presented with a short-handed one-on-one after a turnover and drove across the crease before going to his backhand. It would have been a fantastic goal but for a fine glove save from Bibeau, who continued his excellent play from the opening period.
Next to try his luck was Tanner Fritz. The Sound Tigers forward found some space and released a wrist shot that appeared to have Bibeau beaten but clipped the outside of the left post and bounced away to safety.
In response, Nylander sent Hyman away with a beautiful stretch pass but the right winger looked to be slashed from behind on the play and the chance passed him by.
Instead of going for the jugular, Toronto played keep away hockey from this point on, dominating possession for long stretches without looking like increasing their advantage.
A fifth goal almost came with a little under three minutes to play after a giveaway from the Sound Tigers.
Connor Carrick was the grateful recipient in the right circle but his flashing effort drew another fine stop from Williams, who could not be held accountable for his teams defeat.
A 4-1 final that gives Toronto a 1-0 lead in the series which they will try to extend tomorrow evening in Bridgeport with a 5pm ET puck drop.
Post Game Notes:
For the fourth year running Toronto won their opening game of the post-season.
Toronto killed four penalties and scored once in three attempts on the power play.
T.J Brennan’s goal was his 10th as a Marlie in post season. Ties him for 3rd all time with Greg Scott.
Connor Carrick recorded two primary assists. During last season’s post season campaign with Hershey, Carrick put up two goals and two assists in ten games.
Connor Brown’s goal was his second in the post season but the first with a goaltender to beat! His previous marker against Grand Rapids last year was an empty net insurance marker.
Josh Leivo is in his fourth post-season with the Toronto Marlies. Took his points tally to 17 with two assists in his 21st playoff game.
Antoine Bibeau won’t necessarily garner the plaudits he should, but he was fantastic in making 31 saves for the victory. His first win in his second career playoff game and certainly lay’s down a marker moving forward.
No real single line stood out in the game though the decision to switch Tobias Lindberg and Nikita Soshnikov paid dividends.
The Russian forward score his goal on the line with Nylander and Hyman and could be something we see again.