TORONTO — Dustin Tokarski and a disastrous power play has the Toronto Marlies on the brink of elimination.
The Charlotte netminder made 40 saves as the Checkers defeated Toronto 4-1 on Friday to take a 3-2 lead in the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final.
The Marlies not only finished the night a frustrating 1-for 6 on the man advantage, they also gave up two short-handed goals after going up 1-0 midway through the first period.
"You don’t want that to happen," Toronto winger Trevor Moore said. "That really hurts."
"That’s ultimately the difference," Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe added. "But we’ve got to find ways to generate more."
Steven Lorentz and Haydn Fleury, with goals two minutes apart, and Nicolas Roy scored for Charlotte. Clark Bishop added another into an empty net.
Moore replied for Toronto, which got 20 stops from Michael Hutchinson.
The Marlies won Game 4 on Thursday 4-3 in overtime to even the series, but now have to win two straight to keep their dream of a second straight Calder Cup alive.
Game 6 goes Sunday in Charlotte. Game 7, if necessary, would also be at the Bojangles Coliseum in North Carolina on Tuesday.
"I believe in our group," Keefe said. "We have to stay positive."
The Marlies led 1-0 after Moore’s rebound goal at 10:40 of the first, but things turned late in the period on another Toronto power play.
Rasmus Sandin, the Maple Leafs’ first-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft, had the puck bounce over his stick at the point, allowing Roy to race in alone and beat Hutchinson upstairs with 59 seconds left on the clock.
"It’s an unfortunate play," Keefe said. "It looks bad on the defenceman, whomever it is, when those situations happen.
"He’s in his 18-year-old season and we played him 30 minutes out there tonight. That’s a lot to ask of him. Because of guys like him, that’s why we’re playing at this time of the year."
Sandin said despite the big minutes, fatigue isn’t a factor.
"It’s playoffs," said the Swede. "Everyone is a little tired, but it’s the best time of the year. You’ve just got to keep going."
Following the Marlies’ dramatic victory in Game 4, both teams rested their starting goalies in favour of veteran backups. Hutchinson got the nod ahead of Kasimir Kaskisuo, while Tokarski replaced Alex Nedeljkovic.
Toronto could have easily been up two or three after that first, but was kept mostly to the outside after that. Lorentz tipped a low point shot through Hutchinson just 18 seconds into the second to give the Checkers their first lead.
Charlotte — the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate — then went up by two just 2:14 later on another Toronto power play. The Checkers broke the other way on a rush that looked to be contained, but Patrick Brown found Fleury coming late and he beat Hutchinson through the five-hole to make it 3-1.
Fleury dressed for nine of the Hurricanes’ 15 playoff games this spring, while Brown suited up for eight before being returned to the Checkers following Carolina’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the NHL’s Eastern Conference final.
"We’re very comfortable in our rink," Fleury said looking ahead to Game 6. "Let’s take this momentum back there and get it done."
Toronto appeared to be heading to the man advantage early in the third inside an increasingly anxious Coca-Cola Coliseum when Bishop seemed to catch Moore with a hit to the head, but the referees convened despite the Charlotte player already sitting in the penalty box and backtracked on the call.
"If there’s no head contact, maybe you’re an inch or two away from bringing a stretcher out," Keefe said. "You tell me whether you should call the intent and keep the player safe — I don’t know — that’s a slippery slope."
The Marlies would get another power play midway through the period, but couldn’t get anything past Tokarski before Bishop iced it into an empty net with 1:55 left in regulation to send Toronto to the brink.
"We’ve played very well in Charlotte," Keefe said. "No reason for us to panic.
"We’ve got to settle in and win a hockey game."