Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
You know that a loss is bad when even the team delivering it to you is in a bit of shock. When Christian Djoos scored his second of the playoffs to put the Hershey Bears up 7-2 at Ricoh Coliseum last night, you didn’t see a deadpan look on his face, nor did you see over-exuberance. Instead, a hearty laugh came from the 21-year-old defenceman. Not a “these guys are terrible” laugh, but more of a “how is this even possible?” laugh.
The Toronto Marlies are probably asking themselves the same question, though the tone is much darker in their context. Despite the expectations of just about anybody in the hockey world, the team isn’t just on the verge of elimination; they’re on the verge of getting swept.
I’m not going to sugar coat things here; the third period of last night’s game was one of the single lowest points I’ve seen this team hit in its eleven seasons of play. The only other games that are on the same scale are probably Games 3 and 4 against the Norfolk Admirals in the 2012 Calder Cup Finals.
In the first of those two games, Toronto had outshot the Admirals 16-14 in the first forty minutes of play. It was impressive, given the utter domination that the Tampa Bay affiliate had thrust upon the rest of the league for the several months prior, setting a North American pro hockey record for the longest win streak in history and pulverizing through the bulk of the playoffs. They faltered in the third but made it to overtime. All they needed was a goal, and they had a 1-2 series; not ideal, but more hopeful.
Then Mike Kostka happened.
This was my first year covering the Marlies (or any team) with media credentials, but nearly half a decade later, I’ve never seen a press area so dulled and dejected by one of the most mind-boggling, flukey, and somewhat illegal (Kostka was offside) goals in hockey history. Dallas Eakins compared the loss to being kicked by a steel-toed boot “in a tender area”. It was awful.
But Best of 7’s need four wins, and the Admirals had one to go. The Marlies had time to make it interesting, in theory. In practice, the team completely shut down after the Kostka goal and were thoroughly dominated by the Admirals in a 6-1 Game 4 blowout. The only people cheering in the crowd by the late second period were the families of Norfolk players who traveled. The series was already won, it was a just a matter of formalities, and the Admirals scored three in the third period to ensure that. It was excruciating to watch, even from a neutral perspective.
Last night felt a lot like Game 4. It’s hard to pinpoint a moment where things completely fell apart, but head coach Sheldon Keefe felt that it may have come as early as Zach Sill’s eventual game-winner in the last minute of the second period. “I mean, you’re 50 seconds away from it being 2-2 going into the third, with a chance to regroup and get better, and they score late,” Keefe said. “Frankly, it’s probably what we deserved in that period.
Even still, the team had a break to shake that off. Better yet, they also had a powerplay to kick the period off with. But when Zach Sill’s shot trickled past Antoine Bibeau less than 20 seconds into the frame, you knew that this game was more or less done. For Bibeau, it was literally done; he was swapped out for Garret Sparks. Now, Sparks wasn’t exactly Carey Price either, but at this point, the team was checked out.
“I don’t have the answers on where the intensity went,” Keefe said of the plummet. “Obviously, the players recognize where we’re at, and what the situations in the series.” Unfortunately, it looked like the wrong type of recognition; not one of “we need to fix this”, so much as “we can’t do this”.
So it only got worse from there. Stuart Percy fumbled the puck on an attempted zone entry, and Sparks’ second shot against was suddenly a shorthanded breakaway, which Ryan Bourque converted on. A few minutes later, Jakub Vrana slid a wrister through his five-hole on a passing play that looked more like the Bears could throw the puck anywhere and not lose the micro-battle. On the Djoos goal, the PK until looked completely hopeless, standing kind of in the way but never putting on pressure. The Hockey Gods didn’t feel like bailing them out, either; Djoos actually scored the goal by trying to pass the puck three times. Twice, it rebounded back to him. The third went off of Sparks and in. 7-2. Five goals against in 7:30 of hockey.
The building emptied. Some stayed, but in silence. The stands looked like a house league game and sounded like a funeral. There was a lot of shock and a lot of confusion. There was also one last measure in the nightmarish performance, instigated when Kasperi Kapanen tripped, fell, and sent Vrana off for one more breakaway.
Needless to say, these weren’t the Marlies that won 54 of 76 games. These weren’t the ones who swept the first round, and these weren’t the ones who ensured that Albany, even when they brought the series to seven games, wouldn’t win back-to-back games.
Perhaps that’s part of the issue, though. Toronto has spent all season playing a step from invincible, where even games where they trailed saw the team suddenly click in and come back as if they were toying with their opponents. At no point were they ever in danger of anything; their worst record at any point this year game at the eight-game mark and still have been enough to get home ice advantage. Having a team show up and deservedly win Game 1, steal Game 2, and then claw away at your deferred home ice advantage is demoralizing, especially when it’s been so long since you’ve felt the feeling.
Does that diminish what the team has done up to this point? No, playoff runs are glorified weighted coin tosses, and they could have been swept by Bridgeport and still clearly been the league’s best team this year. Look at the Sharks; they’ve done the right things for a solid decade now and are just now heading to the Stanley Cup Finals. Does Toronto’s white-flag performance last night suggest a long-term character flaw? Probably not, we’re talking about twenty minutes of lost control, not several months.
But as much as many hate the term and the implication it carries when it’s the sole mark of a team’s vision, the remainder of this series is going to be a massive test of character for everybody on this team. It’s hard to fault a group for losing control in a jarring moment; it’s a lot easier to do so if they’re incapable of regrouping and making the most of their moment. “We haven’t given our best in this series,” Keefe said, talking along the same lines. “That’s on all of us, coaches all the way down to the players, to sort out how bad we want this, what we’re made of, what kind of group we are, and what we want to be remembered for.”
The Marlies need to come out more eager than they’ve ever been on Friday night. Every clear path to Justin Peters has to be explored. Every loose puck battle needs to be fought with force. Every shift in Hershey’s strategy needs to be adjusted for with a sharp eye from Keefe and his staff. You don’t need to be a math wizard to know that probability is very much against Toronto right now, but moving forward, the baseline should be putting up a good fight and getting whatever results you can. Playing off Keefe’s thoughts, it’s better to be remembered for not giving up in your darkest hour than it is having a legacy of disappearing at the worst possible time. Unlike the 2012 team, this group got their heartbreak and their bleed out taken care of on the same night. They’ve got a mulligan game that the others didn’t. It’s up to them to use it wisely.
Besides, with the skill that this team has, this series might not even be over just yet. It wouldn’t be the first time an AHL team has come back from 0-3; Rochester did it in 1960, Adirondack did it in 1989, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton did it just three years ago. Coincidentally, their start also included a 2-goal loss, an overtime loss, and a game where they gave up 8 goals.
Toronto also has their own history on their side. Only once all regular season did the team lose four games in a stretch of 7. By comparison, they went on eight winning streaks of four or more games. Can they pull one more out of their basket? We’ll begin to find out on Friday night.