“I liked our start, scoring four goals in the first period. More importantly, I liked the way we handled the third [period].”

– John Gruden

Unlike in Saturday’s overtime loss, the Marlies put together a solid 60-minute effort to register their first win of the season on Sunday. It wasn’t a perfectly polished performance, but the signs from the first weekend of the season are highly encouraging.

First Period

The Marlies were gifted a dream start courtesy of a familiar face.

Under no pressure, Utica netminder Erik Källgren fumbled an intended pass by Alex Steeves in the slot. With just 32 seconds on the clock, Pontus Holmberg slotted into the empty net to set the tone for the opening frame.

The Marlies doubled their lead 97 seconds later when Dylan Gambrell may have whiffed on a great scoring chance but he stayed with the play as Toronto drew a penalty. On the delayed call, Joseph Blandisi cut out three Comets players with a delightful cross-ice backhand pass. Gambrell only needed to hit the target to record his first goal wearing the blue-and-white.

As the all-action start continued, the Comets struck at the four-minute mark. Graeme Clarke netted a power-play tally just three seconds into the man advantage.

The Marlies were unable to score on their first power play, but they did reestablish the two-goal cushion just past the midway mark.

Parked out front, Ryan Tverberg applied a redirect to a shot by Tommy Miller to net the Marlies‘ third goal. It was a just reward for the rookie forward, who made a strong impression over the weekend.

It became 4-1 Marlies only 23 seconds later when Nick Robertson scored with a wicked shot from the left circle, ending Källgren’s involvement in the game as he was replaced by Isaac Poulter.

Late in the period, the Marlies found themselves down a forward for the remainder of the game. After taking a roughing penalty, Kyle Clifford dropped the mitts with Samuel Laberge and was assessed a game misconduct.

Second Period

The Marlies generated several chances to put the game to bed early in the middle frame.

With 2:30 on the clock, Roni Hirvonen missed the target on a wraparound attempt, with Poulter beaten. 30 seconds later, Tverberg hit the post with a yawning cage to aim at, with Poulter once again floundering out of position.

At the seven-minute mark, the Marlies unlocked the Utica defense with consummate ease, but Hirvonen was frustrated by a glove save from Poulter.

Toronto then gifted Utica a foothold in the game. The Marlies were flatfooted in their zone following an icing call before Xavier Parent scored from the top of the circles.

The Marlies struggled to generate much offensively in the second half of the middle frame. At the other end, Martin Jones made three solid saves to keep the two-goal lead intact heading into the final stanza.

Third Period

The Marlies began the third period on the penalty kill and immediately faced some adversity. Hirvonen was clearly on the wrong end of a high stick, but all four officials missed the infraction. The Toronto forward headed for the locker room and didn’t return for the remainder of the game.

Back at five-on-five, the second line should have scored on a withering attack. Logan Shaw and Bobby McMann combined to good effect before the rebound fell to Alex Steeves, who flubbed his shot with the goal at his mercy.

The Marlies were a little too passive afterward and endured a couple of close calls. Utica had a goal correctly ruled off for goaltender interference before Jones produced a sharp glove save to deny Xavier Parent following a defensive-zone turnover.

The Marlies made the Comets pay for not taking their chances by netting a fifth at the six-minute mark.

Blandisi delivered another telling pass, this time to Robertson steaming through the middle of the Comets zone. Using Cal Foote as a screen, Robertson buried his shot into the corner of the net.

Poor discipline from the Comets denied them any chance of a comeback as Utica took four consecutive penalties.

Max Lajoie performed a double goal-saving block to deny the Comets a third goal with seven minutes left on the clock, which was as close as Utica came to putting a dent in the three-goal deficit.

Post Game Notes

Joseph Blandisi wouldn’t have been happy to sit out the season opener. His response was a performance that should convince John Gruden not to make that decision again. Blandisi showed both his playmaking ability (two primary assists) and the physicality that makes him a handful to play against. He’s an important veteran for this young Marlies team, and his off-ice qualities are an asset for the new coaching staff.

“I am impressed with [Blandisi’s] leadership,” said Gruden. “He brings another element of energy on the bench that is good to have… It definitely helps our team chemistry.”

Ryan Tverberg — who scored his first professional goal and added an assist — is an interesting prospect given what I’ve seen this weekend. He wasn’t shy about getting involved physically and got up and down the rink to good effect, but what impressed me most was his decision-making on the ice. Gruden suggested he can be used up and down the lineup, so watch this space in that regard. 

“He can play center, he can play with your first line, and he can play with your fourth line,” said Gruden. “I like his game. He is doing a lot of the little things right. You can see how he can be a good prospect down the road.”

– This was a far better performance at five-on-five from Nick Robertson compared to Saturday. I still see evidence that he is almost trying too hard at times, but his confidence should be in a good place after netting a couple of goals.

“For [Robertson], he is a result guy,” said Gruden. “We want to get him the puck in those areas where he is most dangerous. What he is doing on the power play — we want him to understand to move it and when he can get it back in those areas. We saw how dangerous his shot is, and he had a couple of nice assists.”

Martin Jones was solid in his Marlies debut, although I wonder if he feels he should have stopped the first Comets goal. It’s a delicate balance to strike starting a veteran like Jones over Dennis Hildeby; Jones needs game reps should the Maple Leafs require his services, but Hildeby is a promising prospect and the AHL is a development league. 

“You can tell [Jones] has a calming influence, especially on our younger defensemen,” said Gruden.

Dylan Gambrell, who scored his first goal for the Marlies in this game, is a no-nonsense type of forward who goes hard to the net and can make some plays at this level. It’s easy to see why he’s almost a PPG producer in the AHL. He should provide Toronto with excellent depth down the middle.

– After the game, there was no update on the status of Roni Hirvonen.

– Sunday’s lines:

Robertson – Holmberg – Steeves
McMann – Shaw – Abruzzese
Hirvonen – Gambrell – Ellis
Clifford – Blandisi – Tverberg

Lajoie – Niemelä
Lagesson – Villeneuve
Kokkonen – Miller


John Gruden Post-Game: Toronto Marlies 5 vs. Utica Comets 2

Game Highlights: Toronto Marlies 5 vs. Utica Comets 2