TORONTO - After two wins against the American Hockey League's best team, the Toronto Marlies came back down to Earth in a hurry against the lowly Rochester Americans.
Karl Stewart scored twice and Randall Gelech had the overtime winner as the Americans defeated the Marlies 5-4 Wednesday. Despite the loss, the Marlies earned a crucial point to retain their one-point advantage over the Syracuse Crunch for the final playoff spot in the AHL's North Division. Syracuse lost in overtime to Binghamton Wednesday.
The Marlies (38-29-4-7) were coming off two road wins last weekend against the league-leading Manitoba Moose, but fell flat for long stretches of the game against last-place Americans (28-42-0-8).
Toronto forward Andre Deveaux, said the disappointing effort against one of the league's bottom-feeders was consistent with a season-long pattern for the Marlies.
"It's been like that a lot for us. We seem to play better against the better teams," said Deveaux. "Those games against Manitoba and stuff are easier to get up for, but at this time of the year you have to get up for these games anyway.
"We're fighting for our lives."
The home side's lack of urgency was particularly noticeable in a listless first period during which the Americans established a 2-1 lead.
"You're not going to pat people on the back for taking shortcuts and trying to cheat," Marlies coach Greg Gilbert said. "That's what happened in the first period tonight. We got on our heels and had to battle back."
The Marlies set themselves up for must-win games on the final weekend of the season. Toronto wraps up the regular-season schedule with home games against Manitoba on Friday and Hamilton on Saturday.
"We made our bed and now we've got to win two hockey games," Gilbert said.
Toronto's loss spoiled a record-breaking night for Marlies forward Tim Stapleton, who scored three goals and set a new club record for points in a season with 76.
Stapleton's third goal, with 1:01 remaining and Toronto goaltender Justin Pogge on the bench for an extra attacker, sent the game into overtime.
Toronto opened the scoring in the first period on a fluke goal by Stapleton. Standing behind the Rochester net, Stapleton attempted a centring pass that banked off a Rochester defenceman and squeezed past goaltender David Shantz.
The Americans replied midway through the first with a strange goal of their own. Kenndal McArdle's deflection of Keaton Ellerby's point shot slowed the pace of the puck and the changeup fooled Pogge.
Rochester took the lead late in the period, capitalizing on the only power play of the frame. With Toronto forward Jay Rosehill serving a high-sticking minor, Stewart pounced on a rebound and fired it into a wide-open net.
The Americans had a chance to take a two-goal lead less than a minute into the second period when Stewart was sent in alone on Pogge. But Pogge followed Stewart's backhand move and made an athletic glove save.
Pogge's effort appeared to energize the Marlies. Moments later, Deveaux broke in off the right wing and lifted a backhand over Shantz to tie the game.
Toronto went on to dominate the rest of the period, outshooting the Americans 15-4.
The Marlies went ahead early in the third period on Stapleton's second goal of the game. The diminutive forward took a drop pass in the high slot and beat Shantz through his leg pads.
But the lead was short-lived. Stewart scored 16 seconds later to bring the Americans even and then Drew Larman capped a two-on-none breakaway by converting a pass from Janis Sprukts at the 4:49 mark.
Stapleton scored his 27th goal of the season, poking a loose puck past Shantz in the dying minutes to tie the game.
Shantz made 27 saves for Rochester, while Pogge stopped 13 shots.
The Marlies finish up their regular-season schedule with home games against Manitoba on Friday and Hamilton on Saturday.
Notes: Stapleton snapped a two-game pointless streak. Only twice this season has Stapleton been held off the scoresheet in two consecutive games ... Rochester's Michal Repik had an assist, giving him eight points in eight games against Toronto this year.