Game 1: Marlies Overcome Blown Lead to Narrowly Defeat Lehigh Valley 4-3

Toronto (4) Lehigh Valley (3) Final

By: Gordon Brown

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Marlies lead the series 1-0.

Saturday marked Game 1 of the Calder Cup Eastern Conference Finals in Toronto as the Marlies were set to host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. 

An eleven-day break separated the Toronto Marlies and their last playoff game held on May 8th, in which they swept the Syracuse Crunch with a 2-1 victory in Game 4. Similarly, Lehigh Valley was coming off of a hard-fought series against Charlotte that included a five-overtime thriller in Game 4. The Phantoms had a week to recover before kicking off a gruelling stretch run in search of the highly coveted Calder Cup. 

Lehigh Valley reigned as the Atlantic Division’s top seed during the regular season (47-19-5-5) and subsequently emerged as their champion again in the playoffs. 

Chris Conner entered as the Phantoms’ leader in playoff scoring, with 4 goals and 4 assists in 9 games played.

Lehigh Valley isn’t void of NHL experience, as both Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim spent time with the Philadelphia Flyers at times during the regular season. It’s also hard to forget about former Marlies' fan favourite, T.J. Brennan, who remains productive from the back-end as characterized by his 1 goal and 4 assist totals. 

Starting goaltender, Alex Lyon, entered the night with a sparkling 1.49 GAA, .949 SV%, and a 6-1-0 record for the Phantoms in these playoffs, and happened to be the next masked man to match-up against Garret Sparks and his own 6-2-0 record.

Additionally, the Marlies were looking to remain perfect at home after going undefeated in all five of their playoff games held at Ricoh Coliseum.

As the action got underway, Toronto proved vigilant and punished the Phantoms with their first power play opportunity in order to claim an early lead. A seemingly perfect tic-tac-toe passing barrage conducted from the stick of Timothy Liljegren—to Andreas Johnsson—and eventually to Miro Aaltonen for a slick redirection past Alex Lyon.

The Phantoms were immediately gifted a breakaway opportunity on the ensuing face-off, just moments after their opponent took a 1-0 advantage—but failed to capitalize on the chance presented. In actuality, Garret Sparks just happened to make a superb save to preserve the one-goal lead. 

The duo of Johnsson and Aaltonen would hook up once again later in the frame, with another strong display of tape-to-tape passing. Upon entry into the zone, Miro Aaltonen put his nose down and decided to drive towards the net, where he received another crisp feed from Johnsson before capitalizing on the play. 

Although Toronto appeared to be the dominant team out of the gate, Lehigh stormed back and managed to cut their opponent’s lead in half before the end of the opening frame. 

Philippe Myers ended Garret Sparks’ shutout bid at the 16:04 mark of the period, with what proved to be his 3rd goal of the post-season. Although it didn’t appear like much at the time, the strike proved to be a turning point for the Phantoms to rally behind.

When the second frame rolled around, it took all-but 0:35 seconds for the Phantoms to find an equalizer and further the home crowd’s silence inside of Ricoh Coliseum. Despite a dominant display of possession in the first, the Marlies struggled to sustain offensive zone pressure in spite of faltering behind what was once a two-goal lead.

Tyrell Goulbourne recorded the equalizer for Lehigh Valley after Corban Knight finessed his way towards the net to feed the eventual goal-scorer for a quick one-timer, in what appeared to be a devastating blow. 

Fast forward to the mid-point of the frame and Toronto’s momentum had completely expired at their own expense after Chris Conner propelled the Phantoms ahead 3-2.

Luckily for Toronto, their captain was up to the challenge and helped lead the charge. Ben Smith went undetected in the Phantoms’ zone before receiving a cross-ice feed from Chris Mueller, to which he pounded and convincingly beat Alex Lyon as a result. 

With the score tied at 3-apiece, the Marlies appeared determined to reassert their might as time dawned on the third period. The home crowd was back on their feet when Toronto took back to the ice, effectively generating a buzz for their team to rally behind. It felt a lot more like the opening frame when the Marlies’ momentum seemingly couldn’t be stopped.

At 3:18, the crowd’s ambiance culminated when Adam Brooks took aim from an unlikely angle and picked-off the top corner to beat Alex Lyon with a truly mesmerizing shot.  

The Marlies had plenty of time to burn before declaring victory, however, they would do just that on the back of Garret Sparks’ five (5) third period saves. Lehigh Valley made a valiant push in the dying minutes of regulation time but simply could not penetrate the wall that came to be known as Garret Sparks.

Sparks finished his night with 23/26 saves to his credit.

I asked head coach Sheldon Keefe what he thinks gave Toronto the upper-hand between two very evenly matched teams:

“I just thought we stuck with it. Penalties took the wind out of our sails in the second but we stuck with it. I thought we played some of our best hockey in the third.”

Additionally, I asked captain Ben Smith how he felt his team responded after their lead dissipated in the first period:

“Pretty well. We were able to bounce back a couple of times there, especially down 3-2. Giving up a two-goal lead’s never easy going into the first intermission, we stayed resilient.”

Although the Marlies finished today on a high-note, the turnaround will be quick considering Game 2 is set to go tomorrow (May 20th) at 4:00 p.m. EST.

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Photo Credit: @torontomarlies