“We cashed in on some chances and got our special teams going, which was huge. Our PK was great. It feels like the first game of the year that we won the special teams battle.”
– Alex Steeves
The Marlies‘ penalty kill stepped up to the plate in this outing, negating six of seven power-play opportunities for the Checkers. Meanwhile, Toronto’s power play finally broke through Charlotte’s resistance, scoring the game-winner on a two-man advantage.
The opening frame was a low-event affair in which Toronto enjoyed a large share of possession and zone time without overwhelming the Checkers. Charlotte didn’t create anything of note on the game’s first power play, and a mere two shots on goal were registered by the midway mark of the period.
At some point, Max Lajoie is going to break out and go on a scoring streak. It wasn’t meant to be for him in this game despite breaking in alone on a breakaway; the puck was never in his control, and the chance went to waste.
A fellow defenseman broke the deadlock with seven minutes remaining. A hard-working shift from the fourth line led to Zach Solow finding Topi Niemelä alone in the slot, where the rookie blueliner beat Mack Guzda with a top-shelf finish.
Seconds after the restart, Toronto could have doubled their lead. Kyle Clifford chased down a loose puck and had the option to go for goal himself or pick out a teammate with the Marlies outnumbering Charlotte, but the enforcer dithered on the play.
Alex Steeves was the victim of a questionable call inside the first minute, but after exiting the box, he almost doubled the advantage on a partial breakaway (denied by a sharp right pad save).
The Marlies‘ first attempt on the power play was unsuccessful, but several good looks were generated. It was a much better momentum builder than the power plays in the game previous, and within seconds of the man advantage expiring, Toronto opened up a 2-0 lead.
Ryan Tverberg and Max Ellis were the architects below the goal line, both winning individual battles and freeing up possession for Steeves. The latter had the space to skate to the front of the net and sweep the puck around the netminder from close range.
The Marlies were now in complete control and could have added a third goal. Nick Abruzzese led a 2-on-1 break, but he lost the handle on the puck after putting the last defenseman on his back.
With five minutes left in the middle frame, Toronto — or rather Martin Jones, to be precise — gifted Charlotte a foothold in the game. Riley Bezeau scored with a speculative shot from near the boards behind the goal line.
A lack of discipline put Toronto on the back foot as they took consecutive infractions following the goal. Matteo Pietroniro and Joseph Blandisi were both indebted to the strong penalty-killing efforts of their teammates.
Some generous officiating handed the Checkers an early chance on the man advantage, and they took advantage to tie the game at 2-2. Rasmus Asplund split the Marlies‘ defense before Zac Dalpe scored at the second attempt following a miscalculated poke-check effort by Jones.
A comfortable and well-deserved 2-0 lead had now evaporated, and the Marlies had some adversity to answer to.
Noted for his shot but not as often for his playmaking ability, Nick Robertson turned provider, threading a pass to send Steeves away on a breakaway. Another chance went begging, however, as the latter failed to corral the puck.
The pivotal moment of the game arrived with almost nine minutes on the clock. A neutral-zone turnover put the Marlies on the back foot as Mackie Samoskevich surged toward the Toronto net. Niemelä bravely blocked the shot, and after the puck fell kindly for Asplud, Jones was equal to the effort, pulling off a sharp right pad that was his best stop of the game at a key moment.
Charlotte drew a penalty on the play, but Blandisi made up for his earlier blip by drawing a penalty himself. William Lagesson was then hauled down on a breakaway, sending Toronto to a 5-on-3 man advantage for 40 seconds.
After blowing a similar opportunity on Saturday, would the Marlies learn their lesson?
The answer was a categorical yes. Robertson squeezed a shot short-side past Guzda following a cross-slot pass from Abruzzese, and the relief was palpable for the entire power play unit as the Marlies regained the lead.
The Marlies’ propensity for bad penalties continued with Mikko Kokkonen sent to the box with five minutes remaining for slashing.
Once more, the PK unit stood firm and came close to a second shorthanded goal on the weekend. A fantastic individual effort by Dylan Gambrell beat two defenders, but he didn’t get enough on his backhand shot to solve Guzda.
The two points were secured in the final minute thanks to a Blandisi empty-net goal. The heavy lifting was done by the captain leading from the front; Logan Shaw’s strength on the puck won possession down low in the Toronto zone, where he was able to chip clear. Clifford just needed to shift the puck over to the man they call “Blender” to polish off the insurance marker.
Post Game Notes
– Alex Steeves was extremely pumped to finally get on the board in this game. He’s not been clinical in front of goal so far this season, but he’s the type of scorer who could easily heat up. Steeves recorded a game-high seven shots, and by his own admission, should have scored a couple more in this outing.
– After going without a point in two games, Logan Shaw recorded two points. They may have “only” been secondary assists, but they were on the game-winner and insurance marker goals. After producing at a point-per-game pace last season (69 points), Shaw is already up to six points (2G/4A) this season through three games.
– A look at Nick Abruzzese’s stats sheet this season (2A in four games) might be disappointing, but his performances haven’t been. He’s been among the most effective of the Marlies forward group, and the points will come in due course. Abruzzese picked up the primary assist on the game-winner and would have ended up with at least three points with better luck.
– Ryan Tverberg‘s relentless motor, work rate, and willingness to engage physically against bigger opponents have really stood out in the early stages of the new campaign. Tverberg has already been entrusted with a top-six role despite his inexperience. It’s an opportunity that’s been well earned amid a bright start for a prospect very few people had on their radar heading into the season.
“[Abruzzese – Shaw – Tverberg] gel well together,” said John Gruden after Sunday’s win. “They have a little bit of everything. They move the puck quickly. When you move the puck quickly, a lot gets done. It’s like they have been playing together for a while or something. They did a lot of good things… It is just two bad where there was so much special-times time and they didn’t go out as much as you’d like to see.”
– I haven’t waxed lyrical about Topi Niemelä for a while, right? As some of you know, he’s by far my favourite prospect on the Marlies, and he’s doing nothing to calm down the hype garnered by some impressive performances last season. He’s logging top-pairing minutes and has not missed a beat through four games. It was a fantastic goal to open his account, but perhaps the aforementioned blocked shot with the game tied at 2-2 is more notable as he closed down the gap well and laid out to protect the net at a key moment in the game.
“[Niemela] is not afraid to get involved,” said Gruden. “He scores that big goal, but more importantly, he made some big blocks, too. That is understanding what is important on the ice. He is really a guy you can count on in all situations.”
– I understand why the organization is playing Martin Jones, but I don’t necessarily agree with the reasoning. He’s now played two of the four games to date, which is doing little for the development of Keith Petruzzelli and Dennis Hildeby. One key save doesn’t fully gloss over the bad goal against, and his effort on the second goal could’ve been better as well.
– Dmitry Ovchinnikov made his season debut on the fourth line. It was a bright and breezy performance full of energy and endeavour. His speed is noticeable, he was good in transition, and he showed good hands in tight. He remains an intriguing prospect without knowing exactly how or where he fits in the long-term picture. Short term, he needs to remain healthy and establish himself as a regular contributor in the lineup.
– The first game-winner of the season for Nick Robertson, who bounced back from a below-average performance on Saturday. He’s up to three goals through four games despite not finding his groove as yet with that booming one-timer.
– The Marlies split the weekend series with Charlotte and now owns a 2-1-1 record through four games. Tuesday’s matchup against Milwaukee is the last of the five-game homestand to start the season.
– Sunday’s lines:
Robertson – Gambrell – Steeves
Abruzzese – Shaw – Tverberg
Clifford – Blandisi – Ellis
Ovchinikov – Slavin – Solow
Lajoie – Niemelä
Lagesson – Kokkonen
Pietroniro – Villeneuve