The Toronto Marlies’ 20th victory this season owed much to the success of their special teams.
The Marlies‘ power play connected twice and their penalty kill performed some heroics during a two-man advantage for the Griffins en route to a 4-3 victory in Grand Rapids on Wednesday night.
Currently riding a four-game point streak (3-0-1), the Marlies are the hottest team in the North Division at the moment.
The opening frame was Toronto’s worst period of the game. Without a dialed-in Erik Källgren, the result could easily have been a foregone conclusion through 20 minutes.
The first of the Grand Rapids’ high-danger chances fell to Ryan Murphy — a defenseman known for his penchant for joining the attack at every opportunity — but his chance from the top of the crease was taken care of by the Toronto netminder.
The Marlies responded by creating their one clear-cut scoring chance of the period 60 seconds later. On a 2-on-1 break, Alex Steeves chose to shoot early from the left circle, handcuffing Calvin Pickard somewhat and leading to a huge rebound, but the rookie fanned on his second effort.
Unable to break through despite back-to-back dominant shifts from their top line and earning the game’s first power play, the Marlies fell behind with two minutes remaining in the period on a non-descript play.
After the Marlies dumped the puck into the Toronto zone to facilitate a change, the Marlies failed to sort out the retrieval and ended up on their heels against a fresh set of skaters. The retuning Nick Robertson attempted to poke check Wyatt Newpower in search of a break the other way instead of playing the man properly, resulting in the Griffins’ defenseman easily ghosting by him straight down the middle of the slot.
Källgren turned aside Newpower’s shot but couldn’t do anything about Trao Hirose teeing up Jon Martin for a tap-in afterward.
Entering the middle frame on a power play carrying over from the end of the first period, the Marlies capitalized inside of 30 seconds. It started with a bumbled play by Brett Seney, who lost control of the puck and ended up behind the Griffins’ net. With Griffins’ penalty killers having to turn and defend below the goal line, there was an opening for the Marlies’ leading scorer to pick out Steeves in front of the blue paint.
Less than a minute later, Marlies struck again on an individual effort from defenseman Filip Král, who drove hard to the net on his backhand, shrugged off the attentions of two opponents, and attempted a lofted cross-ice feed. The pass was cut out, but Král stayed with the play and showed sharp hand-eye coordination to slide home the loose puck past the wrong-footed Pickard.
Toronto’s lead lasted less than five minutes after Chad Krys was beaten clean — he made no attempt to play the puck or the man — and Murphy tied the game at 2-2 with a snipe into the far top corner of Toronto’s net.
It nearly went from bad to worse for the Marlies after a holding infraction assessed to Semyon Der-Arguchintsev was followed by a too-many-men penalty, handing Grand Rapids a 5-on-3 power play for 88 seconds. Toronto’s three-man PK unit put in a commendable effort, allowing just two shots on Källgren, who held up his end of the bargain. Matt Hellickson made as many saves as his goaltender with a pair of blocked shots, the second of which left him in visible agony. Fortunately, he returned to the game after missing a couple of shifts.
It was the sort of penalty kill that normally leads to a momentum shift in the game, but Toronto generated very little offensively in the second half of the middle frame and fell behind late in the period.
With 31 seconds remaining, an attempted clearance up the boards by Mac Hollowell was cut out by Matt Berry, who laid a pass to his left, where Brett McKenzie made no mistake with a perfect finish past Källgren.
After Pickard came up with a 10-bell save in the dying seconds to rob Seney of a tying goal, the Marlies found themselves trailing 3-2 through 40 minutes.
The Marlies took control of the final frame and tied the game with a power-play tally at the six-minute mark. The unlucky Mikail Abramov was robbed by Pickard and then hit the iron, but the Marlies persisted and found their breakthrough. Der-Arguchintsev’s cross-seam pass intended for Abramov at the backdoor deflected in off a Griffins defenseman to tie the game at 3-3.
Grand Rapids had an opportunity to restore their lead at the midway point of the period on a shorthanded rush, but Kyle Criscuolo was twice shut down by Källgren. That was as close as Grand Rapids came to getting their noses in front.
The Marlies’ game-winning goal was a result of a simple breakout play after good work from Suomela and Der-Arguchintsev to win possession and exit the zone. The latter flipped the puck up the boards to the former, who found Král surging through the neutral zone with his head up.
The defenseman dropped the puck off to Steeves positioned just inside the blue line on the right side, where Steeves found Suomela joining the play with a perfectly-weighted pass. The Finnish forward drove to his left and fired back again the grain, using an opponent as a screen on a well-placed low shot that beat Pickard at his far post.
There was no love lost the last time these two teams met as tempers flared again late in the game. Dominik Shine sucker-punched Seney behind the play, leading to a fighting penalty and game misconduct for the Griffins forward. Seney was assessed a pair of roughing penalties, setting up Toronto with a rare one-minute power-play situation.
Grand Rapids killed the abbreviated man advantage and immediately pulled Pickard in search of a tying goal. One shot from Turner Elson was all Källgren had to deal with to secure a win that was celebrated with a great deal of gusto by Toronto’s normally-reserved goaltender.
Post Game Notes
– Special teams were the difference in this tightly-contested game. The Marlies netted twice on six power-play opportunities despite being wildly inconsistent with the man advantage. The penalty kill was perfect on the night and came up huge on the 5-on-3.
– A pair of assists for Joseph Blandisi puts him at a point-per-game pace through 13 outings. With the forward now riding a five-game point streak (2-6-8), I’m curious as to why Toronto hasn’t signed him to an AHL contract as of yet.
– There was lots of energy and effort from Nick Robertson in his first action since October.
The misplay on the first goal aside, I thought he performed as well as could be expected after such a long layoff. Expectations should be tempered until he gets his feet underneath him.
“In his first game back, I thought he made some good plays with the puck,” said Greg Moore. “In terms of coming back from an injury, I didn’t feel like there was any difference in his skating or how he was moving on the ice. He works so hard. Sometimes, for guys like that who have so much drive, after the time off, they come back stronger. I thought that was the case for him. He gave us great shifts and great minutes. He looked good on the power play. It is hard to expect a lot from a guy who has been out that long, but it was a great start.”
– Filip Král registered his third multi-point haul of the season with a goal and an assist on the game-winner. The defenseman has recorded a point in 11 of his last 16 games after just two points in his opening 17 games.
– A 21-save performance is nothing to write home about on paper. However, Erik Källgren continues to be one of Toronto’s best performers on a consistent basis. He kept the game within reach in the opening frame and came up with a big double stop in the third period after seeing little action for an extended spell.
– I have been left wanting a little more from Alex Steeves in the last couple of games while trying to remind myself that he’s a rookie. With a goal and an assist, he’s looking more like the player that couldn’t stop scoring to start the year. If he remains on an all-rookie line with Bobby McMann and Mikail Abramov, I would like to see him take the initiative to shoot a little more often. There is a good mix of skill sets on that line.
“[Steeves’] goal on the power play was important at that juncture of the game,” said Moore. “Both power plays getting a goal, the 5-on-3 penalty kill… special teams were important today, and Steeves has been a big part of a lot of that.”
– Wednesday’s lines:
Suomela – Seney – Anderson
Robertson – Der-Arguchintsev – Blandisi
McMann – Abramov – Steeves
Clune – Douglas – Kopacka
Dahlström – Duszak
Krys – Menell
Hellickson – Král