In years past, Boxing Day games hosted at Scotiabank Arena have been wacky and wild affairs in which the Toronto Marlies generally haven’t fared well.
Excuses are built in for the game following a short holiday break against a Senators team that always brings its best against Toronto. With that said, the Marlies produced a very professional performance this year, recording a victory that was far more comfortable than the final 3-2 scoreline might suggest.
The Marlies controlled the opening four minutes without turning it into an advantage on the scoreboard. A solo effort from Joseph Blandisi was well held onto by Mads Sogaard, who was the busier netminder in the early exchanges.
Against the run of play, the Senators struck first at the six-minute mark as they capitalized on a defensive breakdown. The Marlies didn’t take command of the puck behind the goal line and were left chasing their tails for the next few seconds. Keith Petruzzelli turned aside Matthew Boucher’s shot, but he was unable to stop Joe Carroll from scoring his first AHL goal on the rebound.
There was no dwelling by the Marlies after allowing a poor goal against. They leveled the game inside two minutes.
When Toronto moved the puck sharply at five-on-five, the Senators simply didn’t have an answer in this game. Bobby McMann and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev combined to tee up Alex Steeves to score from the right circle.
The Marlies were unable to double their lead on the power play and then found themselves on a lengthy penalty kill. On what appeared to be a borderline headshot from Ridley Greig on Marc Johnstone, Kyle Clifford went after Greig, as you would expect. Intentional or not, it was an incredibly reckless play from the Belleville forward.
The officials called no penalty on the play except to hand Clifford five for fighting and a game misconduct — a bizarre series of decisions from an officiating crew that invited plenty of questions in this game.
Toronto’s penalty killing — excellent as of late — limited Belleville to a single shot. Such was the dominance of the Marlies’ PK, they should have drawn at least one penalty, but the officials didn’t call a clear hook on McMann among a few other missed calls.
Back at five-on-five, Toronto finished the period strongly. Adam Gaudette would have been disappointed that he buried his shot into the glove of Sogaard after finding some space in the slot.
The middle frame has been the Marlies nemesis more than a few times this year, but not in this game. Toronto dominated possession and offensive-zone time to begin the second period, resulting in a power play.
The power play continued to be off-kilter and was cut short with 35 seconds remaining.
The more reliable penalty kill ensured the score remained deadlocked at 1-1 before Toronto continued to control the game back at even strength.
Der-Arguchintsev led a 3-on-1 break at the midway mark as Toronto caught Belleville napping. The chance went begging, but it was clear that with the long change, the Marlies were tiring out the Senators with wave-after-wave attacks.
The Marlies drew consecutive penalties before the power play finally clicked on the fourth attempt. Max Ellis — a new face to many attending the SBA for the Boxing Day game — made his mark with a wicked finish from above the hash marks. His wrist shot is an underrated weapon that he’s beginning to use a little more of late, and it was impressive how quickly he got the puck on and off his stick.
The animosity from the first period continued to percolate under the surface in the middle frame, so there was no surprise when tensions boiled over late in the frame. After a high elbow from Egor Sokolov went uncalled, Marshall Rifai simply wouldn’t stand for it. The defenseman went after Sokolov and a line brawl ensued, albeit with little in the way of punches thrown.
Yet again, the Toronto bench was filled with rage as the Marlies ended up on the penalty kill afterward. Rifai received two penalties for roughing compared to one for Sokolov, who escaped punishment for his actions leading to the scrum.
The Marlies’ penalty kill was yet again excellent, and Johnstone was able to goad Greig into a hooking infraction that every fan up in the 300s could have called.
The Marlies struck early in the final frame to give them an important two-goal cushion. He was “only” awarded the secondary assist on the goal, but Gaudette was integral to the build-up.
With no path for a zone entry available, the veteran forward spun back to his own zone before charging forward as Belleville initiated a line change. Gaudette chipped the puck past three Senators players and won the race to the loose puck before sending it back toward Rifai positioned near the left wall.
Noel Hoefenmayer was afforded far too much space as he joined the play down the middle of the Senators’ zone, Rifai delivered the puck into the wheelhouse of #2, who delivered his trademark one-time slap shot to cleanly beat Sogaard.
Captain Logan Shaw almost made it 4-1 from the restart of play, but his backhand effort drifted wide.
As is so often the case when a scoring chance goes begging at one end of the ice, a goal is conceded at the other. Nick Abruzzese and Joe Blandisi were millimeters away from connecting on an odd-man rush before Belleville drew within one.
An uncharacteristic mistake from Johnstone behind the Marlies net allowed Greig to set up Sokolov for a tap-in on the doorstep.
Despite holding a narrow 3-2 lead, Toronto never appeared flustered in the remaining 12 minutes. Belleville was limited to four shots despite a power-play opportunity and then pulled Sogaard with over two minutes left on the clock.
Near misses on the empty net didn’t rattle the Marlies, who completed a professional performance to extend their winning streak to five games.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies have established an eight-point cushion atop the North Division. Syracuse and Rochester both have games in hand, but the old maxim about points on the board rings true, even at this stage of the season.
– As good as the Marlies were at five-on-five, special teams proved decisive in this game. Toronto went 1/5 on the power play and the penalty kill went a perfect 4/4.
“Our penalty kill has been rolling now and doing a really good job,” said Greg Moore. “The unit as a whole just looks really connected and is taking a lot of pride in buying into the roles and jobs they’re playing out there.”
– Noel Hoefenmayer is an understated character if his interviews are anything to go by, but his play is certainly doing the talking for him. A four-game goal streak takes him to nine in 25 games this season, which is tied for the league lead in goals by a defenseman. He is also ranked fourth in points scoring (24 points in 25 games). No Marlies defenseman has reached double figures in goals since the 2016-17 season (Andrew Nielsen).
“[Hoefenmayer] is not shy to hit the puck at the blue line,” said Moore. “In talking to him, his confidence is at an all-time high. It is great to watch him have a long runway here with our team to get used to the league. He has always believed in himself and we have believed in him to be able to do it at this level. It’s coming along.”
– Another player continuing to roll along: Semyon Der-Arguchintsev. The primary assist on Alex Steeves’ goal extends his point streak to six games (2G/6A).
– A minor milestone for Alex Steeves, who netted his 10th goal this season. It’s taken him 28 games as opposed to 19 last year, but that’s not a slight on Steeves. With teams recognizing his goal threat, Steeves has been more of a playmaker, and the statistics back that up. The sophomore forward has 17 helpers this season as opposed to only 23 throughout his entire rookie year. His shooting percentage is almost identical to last year’s at a fraction under 13%.
– A pair of assists for Adam Gaudette, who looked more like his old self in this outing.
The three-game suspension and illness appeared to knock him out of his groove, but this quality of performance was what we’d come to expect from him prior to the disruptions.
“[Gaudette] is a threat every time he is on the ice to shoot the puck in the net,” said Moore. “His skating and power to win 50-50 pucks and transport the game are kind of like Bobby McMann does — two very strong guys that can just move the game into the offensive zone, hold onto plays, possess the puck, and get off the wall. Gaudette has been very consistent for us.”
– His standard has been so high of late that it’s surprising when Joseph Blandisi isn’t one of the three stars. This was still a solid showing from the forward, and an assist on the power-play goal extended his point streak to six games (5G/6A).
– Monday’s lines:
McMann – Shaw – Steeves
Abruzzese – Der-Arguchintsev – Blandisi
Clifford – Abramov – Gaudette
Slaggeter – Johnstone – Ellis
Kokkonen – Hollowell
Rifair – Hoefenmayer
Pietroniro – Villeneuve