They had to cling on in the third period, but the Toronto Marlies collected two points from their only game this weekend.
In truth, it was a disappointing performance from Toronto on home ice against a Cleveland team that was playing its third game in as many days, but at this time of year, the “how” becomes a little less important than adding two more to the points column.
“We were terrible in this game,” said Sheldon Keefe. “The first period was probably worse than the third, but we scored two goals on two chances that we had. It wasn’t a good game from our guys from start to finish. Clearly, it was a poor coaching job done here today as the team wasn’t prepared to play after two practice days. That is extremely disappointing, but luckily, we were able to get two points here — two very important points. We’ve got to be a whole lot better than that and have more accountability as a coaching staff all the way through our lineup.”
The main difference between the teams in the opening period was Toronto’s clinical finishing as the Monsters were unfortunate to find themselves trailing after 20 minutes.
Michael Hutchinson needed to be alert to make a couple of sharp early saves before the Marlies struck with 1:55 on the clock. A long outlet pass by Steve Oleksy sprung a 2-on-1 break led by Tom Sestito, who teed up Josh Jooris to his right, where Jooris rounded goaltender Brad Thiessen to put Toronto up 1-0.
Celebrating his 29th birthday, Hutchinson made 12 saves through the opening frame, none better than the stop on Mark Letestu from the slot at the eight-minute mark.
With seven minutes left in the period, Toronto struck for a second time to take a 2-0 lead into the intermission thanks to their newly-constructed top line.
Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco and Nic Baptiste almost combined for a triangular tic-tac-toe play, but the latter wasn’t able to get much on his intended shot from in tight. However, Brooks reacted before anyone else around him to pounce on the loose puck and finish off a move deserving of a goal.
Toronto produced their best hockey of the game through the middle frame before it turned into a penalty fest and special teams took the game over.
The Marlies were unable to connect on a power play 90 seconds in, but they were dominating the game for a spell as they held court in the Cleveland zone for the majority of the opening seven minutes of the period.
The best scoring chance fell to Tanner MacMaster, who used his speed to catch a long stretch pass banked off the right boards. In alone on net, the young forward was hauled down as he attempted to score on Thiessen. On the resulting penalty shot, MacMaster’s backhand effort was turned aside by the Monsters goaltender to keep Cleveland in the game.
Toronto’s power play, which went to work four times in the second period alone, was a shadow of its former self during this game as Cleveland almost netted a shorthanded goal to halve the deficit. Timothy Liljegren was stripped of the puck at the offensive blue line, allowing Dan DeSalvo to race away down the length of the ice unattended. A flash of the leather from Hutchinson kept Toronto’s two-goal lead intact.
Cleveland followed suit on their first man advantage of the game as Pierre Engvall forced a good save out of Thiessen during an odd-man shorthanded break.
Back at even strength, the snakebitten Baptiste was unable to connect on a rebound after another overwhelming shift from the top line before a third Marlies goal finally arrived with less than three minutes remaining in the period.
Brady Ferguson won an offensive zone faceoff, allowing Gabriel Gagne to tip the puck back to MacMaster as he moved toward the center of the ice. MacMaster let fly from distance and the puck found the twine through a plethora of traffic in front of Thiessen.
Leading 3-0 with 20 minutes to play, Toronto also had the advantage of starting the third period on the power play. However, the Marlies were thoroughly outworked in the final frame and were forced to cling on for dear life as Cleveland threw everything at them despite tired legs.
The Monsters easily killed the penalty before hemming the Marlies in their own zone and capitalizing following an icing. A faceoff win by Justin Scott was eventually worked to the right point, where Adam Clendening scored with a shot through traffic in front that left Hutchinson unable to track it.
Toronto almost immediately found themselves on the power play, but instead of creating opportunities to restore their three-goal cushion, they almost gave up a shorthanded marker — Ryan MacInnis’ breakaway attempt was turned aside by Hutchinson, who came up with yet another clutch save.
The Marlies were simply not able to break out of their own zone cleanly in the final frame as they were continually halted in the neutral zone, and the incessant Cleveland pressure eventually cost the Marlies as the Monsters drew within one with a little over six minutes remaining.
Zac Dalpe beat Hutchinson with a top-shelf finish for his 21st of the season, putting the result back in the balance.
There were just three minutes left on the clock when a crazy scramble ensued in Toronto’s crease and only the goal line stop from Dmytro Timashov — who also made the heads up play to stuff the puck under his goaltender — prevented Cleveland from tying the game at 3-3.
The Monsters fired 15 shots through the final period and with their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, nearly scored a tying marker inside the final 90 seconds. Another long-range wrist shot through traffic off the stick of Clendening hit the post, with the rebound falling for Letestu standing to the left of the goal. Somehow, Hutchinson scrambled across to rob the Cleveland forward of what looked a certain goal to ensure Toronto clinched a vital two points in regulation.
Post Game Notes
– This was the 30th win of the season for Toronto and their 15th on home ice (15-11-4).
– Games against Cleveland have been tightly-played affairs this season with six of the seven decided by a single goal. This was the Marlies’ first regulation win versus the Monsters, improving their record in the series to 3-1-3.
– Adam Brooks hit the 15-goal mark with his fifth in his last seven games.
– Nicholas Baptiste earned his first point as a Marlie with an assist on Brooks’ goal.
“He’s had a lot of chances in the two games he’s played for us and they just haven’t fallen,” said Keefe. “I think in time, he’ll get going and those will start to go in.”
– Brady Ferguson recorded his first AHL point of the season with the secondary assist on the game-winning goal.
“I think he is getting a little bit more comfortable,” said Keefe. “I still don’t think we’ve seen the best from him, although I thought he had a good game and made an impact in the game. But it takes time to adjust to new levels. He’s found a level of comfort in the ECHL and has done a great job for that team, which is why he’s earned an opportunity to be here. Now he has to find his way to get comfortable here so he can feel like himself and make plays. Part of that is on us to give him an opportunity. Through two periods, it was probably the most opportunity he’s had to get on the ice consistently, and I thought he did well with it.”
– Jeremy Bracco has an assist in three straight games, taking his overall total to 42 for the season as he continues to lead the AHL in that category.
– Tanner MacMaster scored his first goal as a Marlie and his third of the year.
– Michael Hutchinson earned the win by posting 34 saves, improving his record to 8-3-3 with a .906 save percentage since joining the Marlies.
– Tom Sestito was injured early in the third period and didn’t reappear after heading down the tunnel.
– Saturday’s lines: