The Toronto Marlies had a required checklist heading into a do or die game four.
Their best players to come up big and the goaltending to be a whole lot better than of late.
Both of those boxes were firmly ticked as Antoine Bibeau shutout the Bears while William Nylander struck three times to secure a blow-out victory.
Sheldon Keefe had rung the changes after a calamitous game three, deciding to go with seven defenseman.
Brendan Leipsic and Sam Carrick made way for Frederik Gauthier and Viktor Loov.
Toronto began the opening period with the intensity of a team on the brink.
Antoine Bibeau settled his nerves by making a decent first save from Madison Bowey 21 seconds in and then watched as the Marlies took control.
William Nylander was a man on a mission. A man on a double mission that is, as he double shifted with Colin Smith and Nikita Soshnikov. His first shift set the tempo, though it was Zach Hyman who almost opened the scoring.
Viktor Loov and Stuart Percy combined to set-up Hyman in front for what looked to be a tap-in, but the puck skipped over his stick at the vital moment.
Despite controlling the first ten minutes, Toronto weren’t able to find a way past Justin Peters and found themselves on the penalty kill.
A debatable high sticking called on Connor Brown and Marlies received a much needed break when a shot from Jakub Vrana clipped the crossbar.
Hershey would fail to register a shot on net during their opening power play but almost scored back at even strength. Bibeau was alert to Zach Sill’s wraparound attempt and denied the former Toronto man from scoring for the fourth time in the series.
The Bears were back to the power play with six minutes remaining as Rinat Valiev was extremely unfortunate to be called for high-sticking when following through on a shot.
The Marlies penalty kill held firm once again and kept the Bears off the scoreboard.
Toronto hadn’t created much since the first half of the period but a long range shot from T.J Brennan had Colin Smith sniffing for a rebound and that inevitably drew a huge scrum in what was a far chipier game than the three beforehand.
Brennan ended up in the box along with Erik Burgdoerfer and it was the visitors who owned possession during four-on-four play.
Hershey’s best chance of the period would come about with 67 seconds left. Ryan Stanton robbed by Bibeau in tight, much to the delight of the home crowd.
Those inside Ricoh would be even happier as the clock ticked to the 19:28 mark.
The Marlies lost an offensive zone face-off but kept the pressure on the Bears, eventually forcing a turnover which fell to Brennan at the blue line. His shot became tangled up in the legs of Colin Smith and a Hershey adversary before the puck dropped free in the slot.
Nylander was in the right spot at the right time and the puck was no sooner on his stick than it was touching the twine behind Peters. A blistering shot from the Swedish forward which gave his team a much needed boost heading into the intermission.
This game wasn’t pretty at times and that was no more encapsulated than during the middle frame.
Toronto created the better looks for the most part and tested Peters inside the opening three minutes.
The line of Leivo-Arcobello-Brown produced the first two shots of the period whilst Zach Hyman was forced wide on an attempted backhand effort on a partial breakaway.
Nylander looked certain to score his second of the game but Peters denied the effort by getting a small piece of his glove to send the puck high.
The relentless Nylander then nearly benefited from crashing the net after terrific work from Rich Clune, but Hershey’s defense held him at bay.
Bibeau saw little action during the second period but made two crucial saves, the first with almost six minutes on the clock. A shot from Bowey at the point was redirected by Ryan Bourque in front of the net and Toronto’s goaltender did incredibly well to stay with the play and hang onto the puck.
Peters was certainly keeping his team in the game and produced a wonderful stop to keep the score line 1-0. From below the goal line, Ben Smith teed up Kapanen on the doorstep but Peters threw out his right pad to frustrate the Finnish forward.
Bibeau’s best stop of the night followed on what turned out to be a broken play from the Bears.
A shot fired from the point bounced off Sean Collins in front and provided the Hershey forward a great second opportunity with Bibeau unsighted and slightly out of position.
In a save slightly out of desperation. Bibeau threw himself toward the loose puck just in time to smother the effort and frustrate the visitors once more.
Leivo drew the first penalty of the game for Toronto but the power play remained ineffective.
Things actually took a turn for the worse as Brennan made a highlight reel move through the Bears defense but somewhat in frustration after losing control of the puck, slashed the stick of Peters.
That unnecessary action negated the man advantage and handed Hershey almost a full two minutes of power play time. Despite a few good looks Toronto were able to survive once again and finished the period strongly.
Arcobello was looking to shoot on sight throughout the game but although his effort produced a huge rebound off Peters pads, the puck wouldn’t fall for any Marlies player driving the net.
The best passage of play from Toronto in the second period led to them doubling their advantage with 85 seconds before the buzzer.
The Marlies really worked their opponents with a host of quick passes and terrific movement before Connor Carrick found some time and space in the middle of the offensive zone and dished off to Nylander.
It was the worst pass during the passage of play but Nylander controlled the puck with his left skate before firing through the legs Aaron Ness and past Peters before the goaltender could readjust his position.
Up 2-0 with twenty minutes to play, Toronto could ill-afford to take their foot off the gas.
Hershey had shown before they were capable of coming back in this series and an early goal for the Washington affiliate would have given the game a different complexion.
Nylander was once again flying and almost combined with Ben Smith a minute into the period..
Nikita Soshnikov is obviously feeling a little healthier and he enjoyed getting under the skin of the Bears players. The Russian ended up in the box with Burgdoerfer and for the second time we had some 4-on-4 hockey.
Once again it was Hershey who dominated possession of the puck but Toronto went close through a blistering shot from Justin Holl that only just whistled past the far post.
Returning back to five-on-five, Kapanen drew a penalty from fellow rookie Vrana and it proved to be a turning point at the five minute mark.
Percy has looked more comfortable with the puck offensively in recent outings and he took on the shot with traffic in front. Peters made the stop but Leivo was on hand to slam home the rebound at the second attempt.
Cue all hell breaking loose.
Leivo was pushed on top of Peters by Tyler Lewington and the goaltender responded by punching Leivo square in the face.
After the officials has stopped all those on the ice squaring up to one another, the result was a second straight power play for the Marlies and they struck again with the man advantage.
Swift movement of the puck had Hershey unhinged before Connor Carrick whistled a shot from the left circle which beat Peters via the inside of the post.
Two goals in 25 seconds and Toronto were looking like the regular season Marlies.
Hershey were doubtless frustrated but that manifested itself in a totally needless and reckless play.
Bowey lined up Kapanen along the boards and elbowed the Toronto forward in the head.
It took him a while but thankfully Kapanen finally rose to his feet and had words with Bowey who appeared to respond with a slur.
A five minute major and game misconduct penalty for the Hershey defenseman who could find himself in further trouble for the offense and possibly the slur if proven guilty by television evidence.
Peters would pull off some more great saves while his team were down a man but could do nothing once Stanton took a penalty, leading to a 5-on-3 power play for Toronto.
Who else but William Nylander, whose slapshot from one knee found it’s way into the net for the hat-trick.
A delighted Ricoh crowd sent hats flying onto the ice and the only question left now was could Bibeau claim his first ever professional post-season shutout.
The Quebec native would be made to work for it as Toronto were down a man with 2:13 remaining.
A glove save to deny Vrana would seal the deal as the Marlies lived to fight another day.
Post Game Notes:
Toronto’s five goals equalled the amount tallied during the first three games of the series.
Toronto were 3 for 5 on the powerplay after going scoreless in ten previous occasions during the series.
The penalty kill was flawless the four times it was required.
First career AHL hat trick for William Nylander who was on fire, his best performance of the playoffs to date
Antoine Bibeau only had to make 18 saves but the majority of those came when the outcome was still in doubt. Sheldon Keefe vindicated by his decision to name his goaltender early and putting him straight back into action.
T.J. Brennan’s 4 assists tonight tied a Marlies franchise record for a single playoff game. They were his first helpers of the post-season after recording five goals.
A two point game for Connor Carrick. His seven goals ties with Connor Brown for the team lead while 17 points put him atop the post-season scoring race.
Josh Leivo has scored in back to back games and is riding a three game point streak. His twelve points is only second to Connor Carrick.
Mark Arcobello is also riding a three game point streak after as many games without registering on the score sheet.
Kasperi Kapanen would not return to the ice after the Bowey incident.