TORONTO, Ont. – The Charlotte Checkers and Toronto Marlies played a pivotal game five in Ontario on Friday, with the winner set to take a 3-2 series lead back to Charlotte for game six.
Toronto played well in most aspects, outshooting Charlotte 41-24 in Friday night’s game four of the Eastern Conference Final. Both teams started their backup tenders for the second of back-to-back games, and Dustin Tokarski stepped in and stole the show to give his Checkers the series lead. Tokarski stopped 40 of the 41 Toronto shots he saw, guiding Charlotte to a 4-1 win.
Toronto had the edge in time of possession, scoring chances, shots, and looked the better team for large portions of game five, but it wasn’t enough. Tokarski kept the Marlies down, and his offense was its opportunistic self on Friday. The Checkers scored three times with Marlies netminder Michael Hutchinson in net, and each of the three came directly off of turnovers. It is the little things that come back to bite you in a game like this, and turnovers were the Achilles’ heel of the Marlies on Friday. Well, that and the play of Tokarski, of course.
Tokarski made his second start and third appearance of the postseason in game five, and is now 3-0 with a 0.77 goals against and a .974 save percentage. He has excelled when called upon, giving Charlotte the tremendous luxury of confidently resting starter Alex Nedeljkovic when needed.
The game started well for the home-standing Marlies, as they came out strong and put the Checkers under pressure early. Toronto nearly broke through after a Charlotte turnover 8:15 into the contest, but Tokarski made a save then tracked a quick back-door pass off the rebound and stopped that as well. The Marlies continued to play in the Checkers zone, however, and with 10:08 to play in period one Trevor Carrick was called for the penalty that led to the night’s opening salvo. That goal came with 9:20 remaining in the first period, as Toronto was able to zip the puck around the slot with excellent passing and vision to set up the equalizer. Rasmus Sundin took a pass from the point then quickly sent a cross-ice pass to Jeremy Bracco at the top of the near circle, who immediately sent a perfectly placed shot-pass into the low slot for Trevor Moore. Moore redirected the puck on goal only to be stuffed by the stretching leg pad of Tokarski, but the rebound came right back to the tape of Moore and he lifted the puck into the net to give Toronto a 1-0 lead midway through period one.
The Marlies nearly doubled their advantage with 5:45 remaining the opening stanza, but Tokarski made two brilliant sprawling saves in succession to keep his squad within a goal. His efforts were rewarded, as Charlotte unexpectedly struck while a man down to tie it in the first’s final minute. The shorty came after a pass back to the point was overskated by Moore as he tried to keep both the puck and himself onside. Nicolas Roy was able to jump up and claim the biscuit and sprint in one-on-one with Hutchinson. Roy patiently waited for Hutchinson to make the first move, then calmly wired a deposit over the glove of the Toronto tender and into the upper-90. It was Roy’s second shorthanded marker in as many nights, and leveled the score at one and one with 59 seconds left in period one.
The game went to the middle stanza even at one, but the Checkers exploded out of the gate with two quick goals early on to give them a 3-1 lead within the first few minutes of the frame. The first goal came just 18 seconds into period two, as Charlotte capitalized off of an excellent forecheck to gain the lead. After a fierce battle along the boards, Toronto sent a weak clearing attempt to the point that was held in and immediately thrown towards goal by Stelio Mattheos, then tipped between the legs of Hutchinson by Steven Lorentz to give Charlotte a 2-1 advantage the early stages of period two. It was a lead the Checkers would not surrender.
Charlotte doubled up on its advantage just over two minutes later, once again cashing in while a man down. Toronto sent a cross-ice pass behind its intended man, and the Checkers quickly gathered the puck and went the other way. Patrick Brown carried the puck into the zone and succeeded on his second attempt to drop it to a trailing Haydn Fleury. Fleury gathered it at the top of the slot and quickly whipped a shot past Hutchinson to make it 3-1 Charlotte with 17:28 still to play in period two. It was the third shorthanded tally in two games for the visitors from the south.
The Checkers carried the 3-1 lead into the third, where they were happy to defend and kill the clock as much as possible. The Marlies pushed to get back in it, but the Checkers’ defense was too strong. The only true grade-A chance of the frame for Toronto came just 2:33 into the third, but Tokarski was able to track a deflection to stop it and was then able to shrug off a golden rebound opportunity as well.
Toronto called timeout with 2:44 to play in period three and Hutchinson pulled for the extra man, but the conversation led by bench boss Sheldon Keefe was unable to turn the momentum in favor of the home squad. Charlotte was able to clear the puck, and with 1:55 left Clark Bishop fought through two checks to force the puck into the yawning cage and end the drama. Time ran out, and the Checkers left Toronto with a huge 4-1 victory in game five.
With the victory, Charlotte takes a three-games-to-two series edge home to North Carolina for the conclusion of the series, and will have two chances to win one game at home. Toronto, meanwhile, must now find a way to win two straight away from home and in the lair of the AHL’ s top team. The first chance for Charlotte to end the series and clinch the Eastern Conference will come Sunday at 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT inside Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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