The first home game following a long road trip can sometimes be a letdown.
The Marlies bucked that cliche by emphatically outplaying Laval en route to their 30th win of the season on Friday night.
Besides not scoring enough goals, it was as good of a first-period performance as the Marlies have produced all season. Only a combination of less-than-clinical finishing from Toronto and stellar goaltending from Laval goaltender Cayden Primeau kept the Rocket in the game.
The Marlies drew a penalty inside the opening minute and took the lead with 96 seconds played. Off of an offensive zone faceoff, Alex Steeves was afforded a lane directly to the net from low on the left wall. His intended pass hit the skate of Troy Dello before the puck trickled in behind Primeau.
Joseph Woll was barely tested in the opening frame, with his only save of note coming during a power play for the Rocket. Peter Abbandonato was left alone in the crease, but Woll smothered his effort and gave up no second opportunity.
William Villeneuve, who found his passing range from the get-go in this game, sent a perfectly-weighted pass to Nick Abruzzese for a breakaway. Primeau stonewalled Abruzzese and later Villeneuve as the Marlies defenseman attempted a wraparound attempt on the same shift.
There were further good looks for Mikhail Abramov and Bobby McMann as Toronto controlled the game, but Laval and Primaeu continued to hang tough despite the tilted ice surface.
Logan Shaw was the next to combine with Abruzzese on a give-and-go play, but the latter was robbed in tight.
A determined forechecking effort was leading to plenty of turnovers and scoring chances for the Marlies. A booming hit from Bobby McMann led to another good look, but Mikko Kokkonen was denied in the slot.
McMann and his line were a constant headache for Laval, and the Marlies winger should have scored inside the final two minutes of the period. He danced around two defenders and worked his way into the slot, but Primeau stepped up with another important save.
The period finished with a fantastic scoring chance for Steeves, who was afforded the space to walk down the middle of the ice but wired his shot wide of the target.
The teams exchanged high-danger scoring chances in the opening minutes.
Lucas Condotta and William Trudeau brought the best out of Woll, who was a busier goaltender in the middle frame. The Marlies responded with Pontus Holmberg and Adam Gaudette failing to connect on a backdoor play.
Toronto didn’t make hay on a pair of power plays, and in between times, they conceded a tying goal.
Olivier Galipeau’s shot was partially blocked by Tommy Miller, but the puck bounced kindly for Laval, and Abbandonato applied a slight redirect from the slot. The puck slowly crept inside the far post past Woll.
Although the Marlies continued to hold an advantage in zone time and puck possession, they were unable to create the same flurries of scoring chances as they did in the opening frame.
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev struck the crossbar with seven minutes remaining, but it appeared the teams were going to be tied 1-1 heading into the third period. That was until a piece of good fortune delivered Toronto a go-ahead goal with 52 seconds remaining.
Positioned at the point, Matteo Pietroniro attempted to find Abramov low in the left circle, but the pass was in the forward’s skates. Instinctively, Abramov positioned himself to deflect the puck toward the crease and somehow scored with Primeau taken by surprise in the Laval net.
Lavla produced their best spell of the game in the first five minutes of the final frame.
At the three-minute mark, Toronto gave up a partial breakaway to Mitchell Stephens, but Woll was equal to his effort with a comfortable pad save.
A spell of four-on-four action followed, and barring one chance for Shaw, Laval appeared the more likely to score with the extra room on the ice. Toronto was in disarray defensively, but the Rocket couldn’t take advantage in the offensive zone.
A fourth power-play opportunity didn’t convert for the Marlies, who almost coughed up the lead as the penalty expired. Stephens went on another breakaway, but he failed to get a shot off as Woll outwaited the Laval forward.
That proved to be a wake-up call for the Marlies, who battened down the hatches defensively and kept Laval to the perimeter for the remainder of the game.
With a little under four minutes remaining, Toronto’s insurance marker arrived courtesy of an unfamiliar source.
Marshall Rifai won possession at the Marlies’ goal line before he breezed past two forecheckers and exited the zone, creating a four-on-two break down the right wing. You might have expected the defenseman to defer in that situation, but Rifai tried his luck from the right faceoff dot with Gaudette crashing hard to the net. Primeau seemed to have the situation under control initially, but the puck snuck through his equipment and gently slid across the Laval goal line.
The Marlies made certain of their two points with an empty-net insurance goal created by the work of Steeves, Dryden Hunt, and Joseph Blandisi.
Steeves initially used his reach to win possession in Toronto’s zone before Hunt flicked the puck high into the air toward Blandisi in the neutral zone. The latter then showed his determination and some fantastic hand-eye coordination to not only win the battle for the loose puck but also spin a pass to his left. Steeves finished into the empty net to secure a 4-1 victory.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies are the second team to achieve 40 wins in the American Hockey League this season and the first in the Eastern Conference.
– Toronto’s power-play goal broke an 0-for-15 slump through the previous five games. “Our looks were really good,” said Greg Moore. “Primeau had a really good game. You could maybe say we could’ve scored a couple more with the chances that we got, but I really liked the chances we created.”
– Not only did he score a fantastic individual goal, but Marshall Rifai also led all skaters with five shots on goal.
“[Rafai] definitely has a lot of tools and skills to be able to do that stuff,” said Moore. “He skates really well. He is a really strong guy. He can shoot a puck really hard. That is the second time this year that he has done that where he has gone the whole length of the rink and has had the confidence to shoot the puck, which is really good to see.
– Marc Johnstone and Dryden Hunt were the only two Marlies skaters not to record a shot on goal in this game.
– With a pair of helpers, Joseph Blandisi set a new single-season career-high of 18 assists. It was also his 400th professional game and 300th in the AHL.
“[The fourth line of Blandisi – Abramov – Johnstone] has the character, culture guys we have had all year,” said Moore. “As we get bodies back from the Leafs and guys are working in different positions in our lineup, it just shows the strength of our depth.
“Blandisi is sometimes a top-six player playing on the fourth line. He was screaming on the bench the whole time cheering on his teammates. He was maybe not getting the ice time that he typically gets in a game, and he went out with the pulled-goalie situation and made a huge play at the blue line. His positive energy and how much he adds to the culture [speaks] to how good of a group of guys we have.”
– Alex Steeves recorded his 15th and 16th goals of the season in just his 43rd game. Could he break his rookie total of 23 in 58 games?
– By registering his 34th assist of the campaign, Logan Shaw became the first Toronto Marlies captain to record 50 points in a single season since Ben Smith in 2017-18.
– Joseph Woll turned aside 25 of 26 saves for the victory, improving his save percentage to .930 on the season (third in the AHL among goaltenders with a minimum of 10 GP). With a fantastic 13-1-0 record and some top-notch performances this season, the only thing missing from Woll’s stat line (somehow) is a shutout. It’s fully deserved that he’ll represent Toronto at the AHL All-Star Classic this coming Sunday and Monday.
– Friday’s lines:
McMann – Shaw – Abruzzese
Hunt – Der-Arguchintsev -Steeves
Clifford – Holmberg – Gaudette
Blandisi- Abramov – Johnstone
Rifai – Miller
Kokkonen – Hoefenmayer
Pietroniro – Villeneuve