TORONTO – If Friday’s game was any indication, the first-round American Hockey League playoff series between Manitoba and Toronto is going to be a war.
The Marlies bested the Moose 4-3 in overtime, then went back to the dressing room to see Rochester beat Syracuse, securing a Toronto playoff berth in the process.
The back-and-forth game featured big hits, long fights and several swings in momentum.
A slapshot from Toronto centre Tim Stapleton was tipped in front by alternate captain Bates Battaglia, beating AHL goalie of the year Cory Schneider for the thrilling winner.
“That’s why he wears the ‘A,”‘ Stapleton said. “It was a huge extra point for us.”
The Marlies got in Schneider’s face early in the game and for Toronto coach Greg Gilbert, did what was necessary to generate offence against the positionally-sound netminder.
“We want people at the crease,” Gilbert said. “You have to battle for that inside ice and get those second and third chances.”
Added Battaglia: “Good things happen when you’re in front of the net.”
Tempers flared in the first when Toronto’s Jay Rosehill barreled into Schneider after a scoring chance in tight. Moose defenceman Shaun Heshka immediately went after Rosehill and soon all ten skaters and Schneider were involved in the ensuing scrum.
Later in the period, Moose defenceman Zach FitzGerald took on Rosehill in a long and spirited fight. Toronto’s Ben Ondrus and Manitoba’s Nathan McIver also dropped the gloves in a protracted bout with seconds remaining in the first.
Manitoba opened the scoring on a gift when Toronto defenceman Joe Ryan lost the puck directly in front of goalie Justin Pogge, leaving left winger Jason Jaffray open to chip in an easy goal over Pogge’s right shoulder.
The Moose extended their lead early in the second when right winger Michael Grabner blazed past Toronto defenceman Anton Stralman en route to flipping a backhand past Pogge.
Pogge couldn’t do much on either goal and according to Toronto captain Ben Ondrus, kept his team’s faith throughout.
“Everyone’s behind him here and he has played really good against Manitoba,” Ondrus said.
The Marlies would strike back right away on a Ryan Hollweg blast from the point. Once again, Rosehill factored in, assisting on the goal, but more importantly throwing a big bodycheck that led to Marlies possession deep in Manitoba territory.
Manitoba’s Raymond Sawada stretched the Moose lead to 3-1 in the second on a controversial shift that saw the Toronto crowd howling for a penalty on an earlier takedown of Marlies centre Andre Deveaux.
But the Marlies would get their revenge on the power play late in the second. Stapleton used nifty stickhandling to evade several Manitoba defenders before dishing to right winger Jeremy Williams for a one-timer from his favourite spot at the right faceoff circle.
Stapleton tied the game for Toronto early in the third, speeding past Heshka before swooping in on Schneider on a goal nearly identical to the Grabner marker in the second.
Toronto’s aggressive play eventually wore down the nerves of the Moose, with captain Mike Keane getting tossed from the game after a kneeing major on Toronto’s Stralman. FitzGerald compounded Manitoba’s woes soon after when he hit Deveaux after a whistle and was also ejected.
Toronto will travel to Manitoba for Game 1 of the playoffs on Wednesday.
NOTES: The Marlies have now defeated the Moose six straight times. … Manitoba’s Jason Krog sits third in AHL scoring with 85 points. … Moose goaltender Cory Schneider was named winner of the AHL Baz Bastien Award as goaltender of the year Thursday. … Recent Toronto Maple Leafs signee Tyler Bozak was at the game. … The come-from-behind win was just the third for the Marlies this season when trailing after two periods.