Colorado Eagles win 3OT thriller to take 3-1 lead in Western Conference finals

Both sides knew what was at stake.

It was more than a single game. This was the tipping point.

A win would move Colorado into a dream position at a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.

A loss would have Toledo staring at the season’s end right in the face, the Eagles needing just one more victory in three attempts to move on, the first coming on home ice.

In a game of this magnitude, why play only one?

Colorado and Toledo would need the better part of two contests as Colorado won a triple-overtime thriller 5-4 on Friday night at the Budweiser Events Center, just one more victory away from the Kelly Cup Finals.

“This was a hard-fought game, a pretty tiring game,” Eagles forward Matt Garbowsky said. “You have to battle through it and getting fueling up every time you get off (the ice). You never know when it’s going to end.”

Garbowsky hadn’t scored since Game 4 of the opening round against Idaho. A drought of 10 games, practically impossible for a guy who finished third in the regular season with 36 goals and took third in MVP voting.

Shoot, Garbowsky notched three hat tricks in seven games in the middle of the year. But here he was, stuck at one for the postseason.

“It was a rough period there. I felt I was playing well still, but the goals weren’t going in,” Garbowsky said.

Three minutes into the third overtime, he curled over the middle on top of Toledo’s blue line. Linemate Julien Nantel chipped up puck and Garbowsky pounced.

“I took a quick glance to my left and I was alone,” he recalls. “I just pulled it back and ripped it.

“To get that one, it feels amazing. It’s a weight off my shoulders. I think I’ve got to starting shootin’ more, obviously.”

The goal itself was beautiful. A sniper’s dream. His shot beat Toledo goalie Jake Paterson glove side and popped the water bottle. The kind of score player’s dream about as kids.

“Yeah,” Garbowsky grins, “I don’t mind that one at all.”

Garbowsky made have landed the knockout blow, but it was another struggling stalwart who put the Eagles in position to win at all.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel plucked the Eagles up off the mat, notching a dramatic equalizer on the power play with less than 3 minutes remaining in regulation. The center tipped home a shot by defenseman Jake Marto, extending the night on just his second goal of the playoffs.

Colorado netminder Lukas Hafner was less than sharp in regulation by his own admission, but when overtime came about, the rookie was totally on his game, bailing the Eagles out with a number of critical saves as the clubs traded chances.

Perhaps nobody took a bigger physical toll than Hafner, who lost 12 pounds over the course of the marathon.

“I didn’t think I was good enough in the first three periods,” he said. “With our team, we know we can go score a goal. The thing you have to do is shut it out of your mind and stop the next one. You want to give them a chance.”

Instead of a tight affair you might expect with the series at a crossroads, Game 5 was an explosive trading of blows throughout two periods of play, twice forcing the Eagles to battle back from one-goal deficits.

Anxious to prevent a 3-1 series hole, with a third and final road game still remaining, Toledo burst out to a quick edge on the night’s opening score just 3:07 into the game for an ideal start.

Eager to keep pace, the Eagles charged back and answered on a one-timer by rookie Sergei Boikov as forward Cam Maclise cycled behind the net and fired a pass to the wide open defenseman lurking between the circles.

The two exchanged goals in the middle stages of the first as Luke Salazar netted his third of the postseason to equalize at 2. Ryan Harrison sniped a shorthanded score with only 2:33 off the clock in the second to supply Colorado its first lead — which lasted all of 24 seconds.

Toledo managed to fire far more pucks on frame than the previous game (where the Walleye mustered just 12), but still not a high-volume total. However, low shot numbers didn’t prevent the Walleye for keeping scoring pace yet again.

“To win the fourth one, we’re going to have to play much better. There’s no doubt in my mind that how we played tonight isn’t going to be good enough to win the fourth game,” Colorado coach Aaron Schneekloth said. “This win feels great; it’s going to build confidence. The guys know we have to be better.”

Colorado hosts the Walleye for the final time Saturday (7:05 p.m.) before the series shifts back to Toledo in necessary for Games 6 and 7 with a spot in the Kelly Cup Finals on the line.

Cris Tiller: 970-669-5401, tillerc@reporter-herald.com or twitter.com/cristiller

Eagles 5, Walleye 4 3OT

At Budweiser Events Center

Toledo211000—4
Colorado211001—5

First Period — 1. Toledo, Spink 5 (Spink, Caito), 3:07. 2. Colorado, Boikov 2 (Maclise, Hafner), 6:41. 3. Toledo, Jenks 7 (Nastasiuk, Caito), 13:27. 4. Colorado, Salazar 3 (Zahn, Boikov), 16:29.

Second Period — 5. Colorado, Harrison 3 (Boikov), 2:33 (SH). 6. Toledo, Jenks 8 (Berschbach, Nastasiuk), 2:57.

Third Period — 7. Toledo, Nastasiuk 4, 7:27. 8. Colorado, Pierro-Zabotel 2 (Marto, Register), 17:51 (PP).

Overtime Period — No scoring.

Second Overtime Period — No scoring.

Third Overtime Period — 9. Colorado, Garbowsky 2 (Nantel, Register), 3:07.

Shots on goal — Toledo 36; Colorado 44

Power plays — Toledo 0/3; Colorado 1/2

Goalies (shots-saves) — Toledo: Patterson (44-39); Colorado: Hafner (36-32)