Had the Toronto Marlies turned a corner with a win against Rochester Americans on Saturday evening?
As it turns out, no.
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms entered this game on a six-game losing streak, were shutout twice in their last three outings, and were the league’s lowest-scoring team with just 78 goals.
Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate is a hard-working team, however, and showed too much fight and desperation for the Marlies, who failed to match their intensity and desire until it was too late. Had the Marlies been playing a team of the offensive calibre of Syracuse, this could easily have been the second embarrassing blowout of the weekend.
The opening shift was actually positive for Toronto, but a giveaway 80 seconds in should have seen Lehigh open the scoring. Kristians Rubins presented the late Christmas present to Greg Carey, who was unable to beat Joseph Woll.
The first power play of the game was awarded to the Marlies, but despite excellent work from both units, they were unable to break down Lehigh’s resilient kill.
As far as defensive partnerships go, the duo of Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz has been one of the worst in recent Marlies history, and the pair were just awful in this game, with the latter responsible for the opening goal against.
Schmaltz backed off Kurtis Gabriel when he probably should have engaged in the neutral zone and then got twisted into knots while backing away, allowing Gabriel to coast into the zone and flip the puck behind him to Gerry Fitzgerald, who beat Woll with a perfect shot into the top corner.
Another complete defensive breakdown allowed Lehigh to net a second less than four minutes later. German Rubtsov had all the time in the world in the right circle to look up and pick out Pascal Laberge with a cross-ice feed, and the 21-year-old Flyers prospect made no mistake with a one-time finish.
Joseph Woll must have been feeling a case of déjà vu after his last start in Syracuse Friday evening. Only his resolve late in the period stopped the Phantoms carrying a more emphatic lead than 2-0 heading into the intermission.
Toronto failed to improve in the middle frame save for the odd flash of inspiration, but mostly they were just out-worked, unable to deal with Lehigh’s forecheck and failing to execute the most simple of breakouts out of their own zone.
A second power play failed to get the Marlies on the board despite some good looks as Toronto recorded just eight shots on net in the period, only two of which were scoring chances of note — a wraparound attempt from Rubins was denied, as was a one-time effort from Darren Archibald, who also should have done better after a nice pass from Scott Pooley split the defense for a partial breakaway.
While unable to find a way past Woll in the second period, the Phantoms were gaining confidence through the game and containing Toronto with ease as they entered the final frame with a two-goal lead and the opportunity to end their losing streak.
61 seconds: The amount of time it took for Lehigh to put themselves ahead 3-0 in the third period. A fluttering shot toward the net by David Kase took a weird bounce, and while the Marlies had bodies around Woll, they were all puck-watching as Connor Bunnaman scored his third of the season.
For all intents and purposes, the game was now dead, but nobody told Timothy Liljegren, who single-handedly hoisted Toronto back into the game. The Swedish defenseman went coast to coast on a rush down the middle of the ice, dishing off to Tyler Gaudet for a give-and-go before planting a shot past Alex Lyon.
The desperation and work ethic that was sorely lacking from the previous 40 minutes was now arriving, but there was a mountain to climb at this point. The Marlies did draw within one in the final five minutes on a delayed penalty. Liljegren again drove the play as his pass into the wheelhouse of Giovanni Fiore allowed the PTO signing to score his first as a Marlie.
Greg Moore went for broke and pulled the goalie with over two minutes remaining, but Toronto flattered to deceive, and some sloppy puck handling in the final minute was the last nail in the coffin as Morgan Frost’s empty-net tally sealed a well-deserved two points for Lehigh.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies’ poor run of form (3-8-0) leaves them clinging onto a playoff berth (one point clear of fifth place). They now face the prospect of a tough eight-game road trip beginning in Texas against an improving Stars team.
“I think it will be a good time on the road for me to spend more time with guys individually and get to know the team and continue to build those relationships,” said Moore. “I think it’s really important. If we have the right approach and the right mindset within this road trip, we can gain some momentum for our club.”
– While this is now a roster shy on key players, there are simply too many who aren’t performing and I would be surprised if they weren’t at least another call-up or two from Newfoundland before the trip to Texas.
– The defensive pairing of Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz needs to be abandoned. Neither seems capable of making sound breakout plays on a regular basis at the moment, both are making poor decisions defensively, and they continue to miss assignments with alarming regularity.
– Timothy Liljegren is one player who continues to shine brightly despite the carnage around him while carrying the greatest load defensively in terms of minutes and responsibilities. He has 11 points in his last 10 games and is the lone player consistently bringing offense from the blue line with at least a point in his last five outings.
– Giovanni Fiore scored his first goal in a Marlies uniform in just his second game on a PTO contract. A former 18-goal scorer for San Diego Gulls in 2017-18, I wonder if he is afforded more opportunities to impress on the upcoming road-trip as he looks to earn a full-time deal for the remainder of the season.
– Sunday’s lines: