The Toronto Marlies produced a flat performance for the second consecutive game in Lehigh on Saturday.

The Marlies were simply outworked by a Lehigh Valley team that is desperate for points to keep them in the playoff hunt. Another third-period comeback attempt wasn’t good enough to take anything from this game.

First Period

The Marlies recorded only three shots through the opening frame as they were stifled by the Phantoms’ aggressive forecheck.

Their only chance of note was a piece of individual brilliance from Max Ellis. After the winger burst through the neutral zone and across the blue line, he rang his shot off the crossbar.

Toronto’s penalty kill stood firm on two occasions and Erik Källgren made four sharp saves to ensure the game remained scoreless through 20 minutes.

Second Period

The Marlies failed to generate a shot on their first power play of the game, but they did create a scoring chance back at even strength.

Kyle Clifford led a 2-on-1 break, but his pass to Johnstone was far from perfect. The latter stopped up to corral the puck, and the subsequent rushed shot was dealt with easily by Lehigh’s netminder.

The Phantoms then struck twice in 97 seconds to give them a 2-0 lead inside seven minutes. Elliot Desnoyers swatted home a midair rebound to score his 20th goal of the season as Toronto stood around and watched on.

Artem Anisimov also scored on a rebound effort — this one a much easier tap-in from close range as the Marlies didn’t react quickly enough defensively.

In between the goals, Pontus Holmberg generated a chance on a marauding drive to the net. He was one of a handful of Toronto players who could hold his head high regarding his level of performance.

Holmberg then halved the deficit on the power play with a crisp one-time finish on an excellent feed from Nick Abruzzese.

The closest Toronto came to tying the game at 2-2 came on separate drives to the net by Orrin Centazzo and Johnstone. Neither player was able to finish it off, and the Marlies also wasted a late power play.

Third Period

The Marlies finally found their groove early in the third period.

Inside the opening two minutes, Ellis and Blandisi were both turned aside by Ersson while Slaggert missed the target on a partial breakaway. Further chances for Centazzo and Steeves also brought the best out of Lehigh’s goaltender, who only faced 10 shots through the first 40 minutes.

Making his Marlies debut, Radim Zohorno was struggling to make a positive impact on the game and made matters worse by taking an avoidable tripping penalty. Lehigh seized the chance, with Garrett Wilson scoring on a pinball sequence in the Toronto crease.

Holding a 3-1 lead, the Phantoms should have put the game to bed with 10 minutes remaining.  Adam Ginning, Ronnie Attard, and Ansimiov were all turned aside by Källgren, who made four high-quality saves in a 40-second span.

Abruzzese attempted to bring Toronto within one singlehandedly, showing a burst of speed and quick hands to breeze past two defenders and create a chance from the slot. Ersson was equal to the backhand shot by Arbuzzese, and the game appeared to be slipping away from the Marlies at this point.

That was until some indiscipline by Louie Belpedio, who hammered Abruzzese against the wall long after a whistle for offside. With the action already at four-on-four, Toronto opted for the extra attacker to give them a two-man advantage.

From the top of the left circle, Noel Hoefenmayer ripped home a trademark one-timer, bringing the Marlies within one with 3:19 remaining.

Källgren was back to the bench within seconds of the restart, but Toronto didn’t record a shot before Olle Lycksell scored into the empty net.

The Marlies hit back through Filip Král with 20 seconds left and threatened a miraculous comeback in the game’s final moments. Despite a flurry of activity around the home net in the dying seconds, Toronto was unable to get it over the line and fell to a second consecutive 4-3 loss to an Atlantic Division opponent.

Post Game Notes

– This defeat marks three successive road defeats this season, Toronto’s longest losing streak away from Coca-Cola Coliseum.

Noel Hoefenmayer snapped an 18-game goalless streak by netting his 11th of the season. Secondary scoring has been an issue for Toronto this season, but his 34 points from the blue line are more than double what any other defenseman on the team has accrued.

– In his fourth game since returning from injury, Filip Král scored his fourth goal of the year. He could definitely help provide a little offense off the backend if he can stay healthy.

– Toronto only really threatened Lehigh when the forward trio of Nick Abruzzese (2A), Pontus Holmberg (1G), and Alex Steeves (2A) were on the ice. There was some frustration as chances went begging, but if they continue to create as many looks as they did, the goals will come.

– With a depleted roster, a third/fourth line is currently masquerading as the second line.  Kyle Clifford is an effective forechecker when on his game. Otherwise, he doesn’t have the required skill set to produce offense in the top six. Joseph Blandisi is struggling to find his form after a bright start to the season. Marc Johnstone is giving his all in a role above his station.

If I were Greg Moore, I would consider promoting Max Ellis to the second line. Given his current form and ability to generate scoring chances off the rush, he could add a spark of energy. Of his 18 points this season, he’s recorded seven of those (6G/1A) in the last nine games since receiving a promotion to the third line.

– I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a debut than with Radim Zohorno’s performance in this outing. Maybe my expectations were too high, but Zohorno looked out of sorts for the entirety of the game. The penalty he took smacked off a player frustrated by his performance.

It could be due to the lengthy travel and no acclimation time. He was enjoying a career-high year in Calgary with 29 points (10G/19A) in 40 games on one of the top AHL teams.

– With the AHL trade deadline approaching fast (March 10), it would not be a surprise if Toronto attempts to add firepower to the roster.

– Saturday’s lines:

Abruzzese – Holmberg – Steeves
Clifford – Blandisi – Johnstone
Zohorna – Slaggert – Ellis
Centazzo – Solow

Benn – Hoefenmayer
Rifai – Miller
Král – Kokkonen


Post-Game Media Availability: Hoefenmayer & Moore

Game Highlights: Phantoms 4 vs. Marlies 3