TORONTO– Down 3-2 in the best-of-seven Conference Semifinal, Toronto returned home for Game 6 Tuesday night with a chance to extend the series.
Everything looked positive for the club as they clung to a 3-1 lead to start the third period. It looked like a Game 7 would be needed, however, a late-game collapse eventually led to a 4-3 victory for Grand Rapids.
“Some of the times we’ve tinkered with switching out systems but we didn’t make any changes between the second and third,” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins post-game. “It’s funny, when you have the lead 3-1 why would you change anything? The thing we’ve experienced this year is when we’ve been up and pulled back it hasn’t worked in our favor. We wanted to stay aggressive.
“It looked like we had everything under control and suddenly some missed assignments and a bad bounce and suddenly it’s turned the other way.”
So what exactly went wrong?
Well, the Griffins had already garnered momentum in the second period by beating Toronto in scoring chances 5-1 and overall shots 11-5.
They continued to put on pressure early in the third period and could have started their comeback much sooner if it wasn’t for Marlies goaltender Drew MacIntyre.
Jerry D’Amigo was leveled in the neutral zone at 13:44 by Triston Grant. The hit led to D’Amigo going to the dressing room briefly while Grant picked up a minor for interference.
Spending Monday’s practice working on special teams Eakins was looking to get more out of his power play, but the Griffins killed it off and kept the momentum in their favour.
“Obviously we would have liked a couple more chances on that power play,” said Eakins.
Only a 1:19 after killing off Grant’s penalty, Toronto’s first missed assignment that backfired took place.
Jan Mursak skated between forwards Will Acton and Ryan Hamilton at the Marlies blue line with puck on stick after receiving a pass from Brett Skinner, who was just outside the blue line, and beat defenceman Paul Ranger on his back hand to the middle of the slot while defenseman Dylan Yeo was trailing the play. Mursak put a shot over MacIntyre’s blocker to bring his club within a goal.
At this point in time Eakins wanted to use his timeout, but it was already spent.
The coach only had two centremen take defensive zone face-offs the entire game, Mike Zigomanis and Acton. So when Eakins was caught with three defencemen and no centreman on the ice in the second period after an icing, his timeout was used to get some rest. (Winger Ryan Hamilton took the face-off and won.)
“It was one of those times, people always criticize coaches for hanging on to their timeouts and not using them and we were dead tired early in the game on an icing where we didn’t have a centremen on the ice and I had to take my timeout then,” said Eakins. And I was dying for that timeout right after the second (goal) because it would have been a great time to settle things down.”
Only 28 seconds after Mursak’s goal, the next defensive breakdown led to the tying goal from Tomas Tatar, who also undressed defenceman Mike Mottau in the second period for Grand Rapids’ first goal.
The breakdown started with defencemen Korbinian Holzer icing the puck. Acton lost his only defensive face-off of the game and eventually all five Marlies players were caught above the hash marks, either watching the puck or trying to block a point shot from forward Riley Sheahan. The shot found its way through the crowd of Marlies, deflected someone in front, and popped out front of MacIntyre to a wide-open Francis Pare, who placed a fancy pass through his legs to an open Tatar at the side of MacIntyre’s crease. Tatar had an easy tap to make it 3-3 with 9:56 to play in the game.
“Another missed assignment led to another one and we were firmly on our heels,” said Eakins. “The shift change came when they scored the third (goal) and that’s when you could feel it coming.”
The Griffins completed their comeback and finished off the Marlies season with 4:03 to play in the game after another breakdown in Toronto’s end.
Ranger lost a puck battle to Mursak on the wall inside the Marlies zone and put the puck towards the net. Forward Luke Glendening out-muscled both Holzer and forward Joe Colborne at the top of the crease to put home a loose puck after MacIntyre made a save with his left pad.
“It’s a bad feeling,” said team captain Hamilton. “We had a great group of guys, a great team that could have done some damage and won a championship. But we ran into a great team in Grand Rapids. Give them a lot of credit”
Grant’s hit on D’Amigo may not have been a turning point. But the inability to capitalize on the power play followed by defensive zone mistakes and the lack of a timeout backfired on Toronto when it mattered most. The Griffins were the better team the entire series, however Toronto found ways to keep themselves in it. Unfortunately for them, though, Wednesday was spent cleaning out lockers instead of suiting up for Game 7.
Regardless of the disappointment, Eakins had a final message for his group as they faced the reality that their season is over.
“I was very proud,” said Eakins. “And the next message is how are you going to handle your summer to get better? Are you going to remember how hard it is to play in this league, how hard it is to get a shot at the NHL? Or is that memory of how hard it is going to be lost in a couple weeks when you’re standing on a golf course and not in the rink?”