TORONTO – With none of his teammates to dish the puck to, Jiri Tlusty took matters into his won hands.
The Toronto forward scored late in the third period to lift the Marlies over the San Antonio Rampage 4-3 in the opening game of their first-round AHL playoff series Wednesday.
Tlusty picked up a loose puck behind the Rampage net, circled in front and beat San Antonio goalie Al Montoya with a wrist shot over the left shoulder at 13:29 of the third period.
“No one was around me,” said Tlusty. “At first I was looking to pass. No one was there so I just decided to shoot and Montoya went down and I went high.”
Tlusty, who spent most of the regular season up with the parent Toronto Maple Leafs, has five goals and 11 points in five games with the Marlies since being sent down to the AHL after the Leafs’ season ended.
“It’s been great,” said the 20-year-old native of the Czech Republic. “I enjoy being here with the guys because they are like my second team. It’s unbelievable being here.
“I’m just trying to play hard and play for our guys in the room. We just play for each other because, you know, we want to go a long way in the playoffs.”
Forwards Kris Newbury, John Mitchell and Alex Foster also scored for the Marlies in front of a season-low crowd of 1,063 fans at Ricoh Coliseum.
The victory gives the Marlies a 1-0 edge in the division semifinal as the franchise pursues its first-ever AHL post-season series win.
David Spina and ex-Marlie Brendan Bell had power play goals for San Antonio, while Matt Murley added a short-handed goal.
Centre Mike Zigomanis collected two assists in a losing cause.
“When we utilized our speed, when we played with pace, we were difference-makers,” said Rampage coach Greg Ireland, whose team rallied from deficits of 2-0 in the second period and 3-2 in the third before coming up short. “We have to play at that pace. We have to be a little more committed down low and be smarter on our coverage.”
While San Antonio’s special teams provided all three of the Rampage’s goals, the Marlies outscored the visitors 4-0 at even strength.
Toronto goalie Scott Clemmensen, getting the start over prospect Justin Pogge, stopped 27 of 30 shots for the victory. At the other end, Montoya made 24 saves on 28 shots.
“(San Antonio) has a lot of skilled guys and this is playoff hockey,” Clemmensen said. “This is a team we don’t know a whole lot about, but we knew they had a lot of firepower up front and they showed it at times, that’s for sure.”
The game was a 0-0 draw after the first period, which featured several more bodychecks than scoring chances, before play opened up and it was tied 2-2 through 40 minutes.
Newbury opened the scoring at 2:07 of the second period when he slid a backhander between Montoya and the left goalpost after the Rampage goalie gave up a rebound in the slot.
Less than two minutes later, Mitchell made it 2-0 for the home side when he snapped a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle past Montoya at 3:51.
The Rampage responded with a power-play goal midway through the second, with Spina driving hard to the net and tapping in a nice cross-ice pass from Enver Lisin at 11:29.
San Antonio’s special teams struck again late in the second period, just nine seconds after Rampage defenceman Dylan Reese was sent to the penalty box for interference.
Zigomanis won a faceoff in the offensive zone back to Murley, who whipped a one-timer past Clemmensen’s glove at 19:42.
Toronto regained the lead when winger Colin Murphy – who dropped the gloves with Rampage winger Steven Goertzen just three seconds into the game – fed Foster in front and he fired a wrist shot that beat Montoya low to the stick side.
Bell, who spent three seasons in the Toronto organization, tied the game at 3-3 when he blasted a slapshot from the left faceoff circle past Clemmensen’s glove at 10:57 of the third.
Less than three minutes later, Tlusty’s shot gave the Marlies the early edge in the series.
“Big goal,” Clemmensen said. “We took it to them in the first part of the game, then took our foot off the gas pedal after we scored two goals and let them back in it and then we had to come back again, then we let them back in it and then we came back again.
“It showed good resolve by us and it was a big goal by Jiri, obviously.”
Game 2 is Friday in Toronto.