The Toronto Marlies threw in their worst display of the playoffs in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
On a high after downing Albany in seven games, Toronto rarely competed with a Hershey Bears teams who took a while to get their legs under them.
The Marlies were certainly the better team through large parts of the opening period, though they would have wanted to test Peters more often.
It took just 75 seconds for Toronto to create the first golden opportunity. Nice work from Percy and Leivo down the right side teed up Connor Brown in the slot, but his one-timer whistled wide of the cage.
Hershey responded by fashioning themselves an equally good chance.
Travis Boyd found himself with a ton of space and made a reverse pass from behind the net to Jakub Vrana. The impressive conspired to fire high from the tight angle with Bibeau struggling to get across his net.
The first shot registered on net wouldn’t occur until the seven minute mark with Ben Smith letting fly from the right face-off dot, but Justin Peters cluing onto the effort.
The opening goal of the series wasn’t far behind that initial salvo.
The recently criticised William Nylander stripped the puck from former Leaf Zach Sill at centre ice. Curling around and heading into the Hershey zone with speed, Nylander dished the puck off to Kasperi Kapanen before driving right to left across the ice. The Finnish winger picked out Nylander who had a step on his opponent and sent a sweet backhand shot past Peters.
The Marlies were controlling the puck and looked likely to add their one goal before a debateable call sent them on the penalty kill.
Hershey moved the puck well but forced Bibeau into just one save. Christian Djoos ripping a shot from the left circle that the Toronto netminder did well to get a piece of with his blocker.
A 2-on-1 rush orchestrated by a chip off the boards in their own end, saw Toronto break with Brendan Leipsic and Nylander. A Bears defenseman had the Swedish forward covered, so Leipsic tried his luck and Peters did well to stop the shot and not allow a rebound.
The remaining five minutes of the first period were the Bears best of the opening frame and they really should have tied the game. Garret Mitchell was the first to go close but his tip on a long range shot, ended the wrong side of the left post. Vrana would twice force good saves from Bibeau, as would an effort from Boyd in-between those efforts, as Hershey gave Toronto the runaround.
Only a fine shift from the Marlies fourth line broke up proceedings, Nikita Soshnikov with a chipped effort from the slot after a set-up from Rich Clune.
The shots favoured the road team 7-5 and they were just about value for a 1-0 lead.
That was as good as it would get for the top seeds however.
A cheap turnover in the first minute of the middle frame had the Marlies scrambling and unable to clear their zone. Ryan Bourque was gifted space on the left side and measured a shot that Bibeau could not hang onto with his glove but the rebound was poked away to safety.
A goal for the home team felt inevitable and it came at with 3:39 on the clock.
Yet again Toronto were caught running around in their defensive zone, unable to clear and pinned in for 75 seconds. Somehow Carter Camper was left all alone between the circles and he beat a screened Bibeau to tie the game up.
Leipsic was the guilty man, neither blocking the shot or getting out of the lane but it was a terrible shift from every skater on the ice.
The ice felt even more tilted following the Hershey goal but Toronto held on until earning themselves a power play.
Ryan Stanton blocked three shots as the Marlies weren’t able to test Peters before the penalty expired.
Connor Carrick wasn’t enjoying his time back at the Giant Center and allowed Vrana to strip him of the puck in front of net. Carrick was grateful to Stuart Percy who averted danger by getting his stick in the lane and diverting Vrana’s shot high over the net.
A TV timeout at the midway point seemed to do the trick for Toronto as they dominated the puck and had a spell of pressure in the Hershey zone when play resumed. Unable to create anything of note, it’d be the Marlies last spell of such possession during the second period.
Chris Bourque and Vrana must have felt like it was Christmas with the amount of time and space they were being gifted with and the two of them almost combined with five to play.
Vrana fired wide on his initial effort and nearly banked home the huge bounce from the backboards.
Camper failed to then capitalise from a gift in the slot after a sloppy and tired looking Toronto team had been called for consecutive icings.
That near miss from Camper may have clipped the crossbar but there were many more chances in the last few minutes for his team.
Hershey’s second power play of the middle frame had Toronto confined to their own zone with little hope of escape such was the efficiency of the home teams control of the puck.
Vrana once again with the best chance, Bibeau doing well to make the first stop from the backhand and poking the rebound away after a scramble.
Even back at even strength for the remaining 44 seconds of the period, Toronto could not escape and as the horn sounded, defenseman Ryan Stanton planted his backhand shot in the net.
It was a close run thing if the goal should stand or not but the officials ruled that time had run out, much to the derision of those cheering the Bears.
Everyone connected with Hershey felt hard done by but it didn’t seem to affect the team.
Toronto were still way off the pace and despite needing to be a whole lot better in the third period, never threatened to match the home team in any department.
It took less than three minutes for the Bears to take a deserved lead.
Liam O’Brien firing through traffic and beating Bibeau short side, on a shot that the goaltender would probably want back.
Toronto were able to kill off Hershey’s third penalty of the game and finally tested Peters at the six minute mark. Kapanen finding some space down the middle of the ice but his snap shot would be held onto.
A 3-on-2 break shortly after was another opportunity but the puck was moved too slowly and Leivo watched Peters smother his effort with ease.
It’d be fourth time lucky for Hershey’s power play and it’d be the man at fault for the first goal of the game who redeemed himself.
Sill crashed home a rebound in front after shots from Camper and Aaron Ness had been denied, to put the Bears up 3-1
Never have Toronto looked less likely to mount a comeback than they did in this game and the score line could easily have been worse such was Hershey’s dominance in every zone.
Sheldon Keefe gambled with 4:20 to play, pulling Bibeau from net for the extra attacker.
It provided 30 seconds or so of offensive zone time but ended with Leivo watching another shot held by Peters.
Hershey coasted home to as easy a victory as they could have imagined and a 1-0 series lead.
Post Game Notes:
A worrying loss for Toronto, who showed little in the way of urgency or purpose after taking the lead.
Too many turnovers in all zones and often players tried to make plays on their own, with structure sorely lacking at times.
The space afforded to the line of C. Bourque-Boyd-Vrana was frightening at stages.
Getting back to work as early as Saturday night can be counted as a blessing and Hershey are far from an unbeatable foe.
The Bears worked hard, made opportunities through a strong fore-check and won the small battles all over the ice. A team that Toronto should be able to compete with and better, if bringing their A-game.
Notable scratches were Matt Frattin, Colin Smith and Sam Carrick. It’s not hard to envisage changes being made.
Antoine Bibeau wasn’t necessarily at his best, certainly not for the second goal, but he shouldn’t take the heat for this loss. I fully expect Garret Sparks to be given his opportunity Saturday night however.
Mark Arcobello crashed hard into boards in the third period but would return to the ice.
The lone goal was Nylander’s third of the post season.
Kasperi Kapanen’s assists extends his point streak to three games.