This was another impressive performance from the Toronto Marlies following up on last weekend’s demolition of the Grand Rapids Griffins.

“After giving up a goal so late in the first [period], I thought we did a great job of not giving them much more momentum. Regardless of the score, as long as our style of play is where we want it to be, the score will take care of itself.”

– John Gruden

The two teams traded chances during a frantic first period, but the Marlies were superior at five-on-five and put together an excellent 60 minutes en route to a 7-2 victory.

First Period

When reviewing the video of this game, Manitoba will be disappointed by their inability to capitalize on opportunities in the first period. Danny Zhilkin escaped on a breakaway just 30 seconds in, but the centreman sent his effort wide of the target.

At the other end, the Marlies scored inside the opening minute. The returning Logan Shaw was not picked up by the Moose as a late trailer on a breakout play. After receiving a cross-ice feed from Keiffer Bellows, Toronto’s captain finished it off from the right circle.

The Moose responded 90 seconds later when Dennis Hildeby was unsighted by traffic in front and beaten by Parker Ford’s point shot.

Toronto regained the lead at the seven-minute mark after capitalizing on a turnover behind the Manitoba goal line. Possession was worked back to the point, where Max Lajoie and Topi Niemelä combined to tee up Alex Steeves in the left circle. Steeves had plenty of time and space to confidently rip home his ninth goal of the campaign.

The Marlies doubled their lead less than 90 seconds later. Pontus Holmberg’s intended stretch pass to send Max Ellis away was brilliantly denied by the outstretched stick of Kyle Capobianco, but the latter handed the puck to Holmberg following up on the play. The Swedish forward finished nicely past Collin Delia, signaling the end of the game for the Moose goaltender, who was replaced by Thomas Milic.

Steeves almost scored a second goal late in the frame. On a partial breakaway, his five-hole attempt was stopped and the rebound narrowly missed Nick Abruzzese, who would have had a tap-in.

There was a disappointing let-off to end the opening period, which is something John Gruden and the leadership group would have spoken about in the locker room. On a delayed penalty, Toronto was sloppy as Nikita Chibrikov scored in a messy scramble in the slot, beating the buzzer by seven seconds.

Second Period

The Marlies responded to the minor adversity to end the first frame by dominating the second period. Manitoba was limited to just two long-range shots as Toronto set out to extend their narrow advantage by dominating possession and zone time.

Bellows was unable to score on a breakaway just over a minute into the frame before turning provider on the same shift.  He out-worked two Manitoba players in the neutral zone to create a 2-on-1 break, with Shaw leading the rush. Toronto’s captain faked a pass to his right before scoring short-side on Milic.

Additional scoring opportunities were spurned by Joseph Blandisi (breakaway) and Max Ellis (from the high slot) before the Marlies netted their deserved second goal of the period. On another dominant shift by the second line, Abruzzese found Steeves in the slot, where Steeves held off C.J. Seuss and fired back across goal, beating Milic with a top-shelf finish.

Blandisi and Ellis combined late in the period, but neither could convert on high-quality scoring chances. In a game short on penalties, Toronto finished the period with a man advantage but struggled to create much of note.

Third Period

Up 5-2, you might have expected Toronto to take their foot off the gas, but it was far from the case. Despite wasting another power play early in the frame, the Marlies struck again at the five-minute mark.

A chipped pass by Shaw was chased down by Bellows through the neutral zone and just across the blue line. The veteran forward spun on the right wall and sent the puck to the onrushing Dmitry Ovchinikov, who is full of confidence after his scoring exploits on the recent road trip. The Russian forward delivered a five-hole finish that barely trickled over the goal line.

Although the shot count was much closer in the third period (8-7 Toronto), Manitoba rarely threatened to score. Hildeby was forced into just a couple of saves of note in what was easily his most comfortable game in the AHL to date.

The Marlies’ conversion on the touchdown came from an unlikely source. Tommy Miller activated into the play in the offensive zone, causing a turnover with a crushing hit. Steeves picked out the defenseman, who delivered a top-shelf finish from the high slot. Much to the delight of the blue liner and his teammates, it was his first AHL goal in his 51st career game.

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies scored seven goals for the second time in eight days, extending their win streak to three games. With six of the next eight games at Coca-Cola Coliseum (including Sunday’s rematch against Manitoba), the Marlies will look to build on a solid home record of 4-1-1.

– Can’t stop, won’t stop. Alex Steeves extended his point streak to 10 games by potting a pair of goals and adding an assist. His first three-point game of the campaign moved him into a tie for seventh in AHL scoring (10G/7A). John Pohl’s single-season record of 36 goals set in 2005-06 could be under threat should Steeves remain healthy and isn’t called up.

Logan Shaw returned to action with a bang, also helping himself to a three-point haul (2G/1A). The balance he brings to the lineup and his leadership qualities make a noticeable difference on an inexperienced roster.

“We can survive for a little bit without [Shaw], but any time we get him back, it is huge,” said Gruden. “He is a great leader on and off the ice.”

– With John Gruden’s hiring, my hope was that we would see more of a meritocratic approach to lineup decisions. Dmitry Ovchinnikov’s recent excellent form on the road saw him rewarded with a promotion to the top line alongside Bellows and Shaw. He responded with a solid contribution against higher-quality competition and managed to chip in with a goal.

Nick Abruzzese is forming quite the partnership with Steeves regardless of who plays center between them. The former extended his point streak to five games (2G/7A) with an assist and could easily have grabbed a handful of points with a little more puck luck.

– This third successive win for Dennis Hildeby was his first on home ice. In five starts, the Swedish netminder has only given up more than two goals on one occasion. After a frenetic first period, this was easily his most comfortable outing, facing just 18 shots in total.

–  Will he sign a contract? Keiffer Bellows seemingly gets better with every game he plays. With three assists (all primary) in this game, he continues the streak of producing a point in every game (six) so far this season (4G/6A).

“[Bellows] is a skilled player and has played at the NHL level,” said Gruden. “He is a big, strong body and can make plays. He has a great release. For him to come in this early and gel, it’s a credit to our leadership for making him feel comfortable. It has allowed him to play to the best of his ability right away. I like where he is trending right now.”

Kyle Clifford is currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury. 

– Saturday’s lineup:

Bellows – Shaw – Ovchinnikov
Abruzzese – Gambrell – Steeves
Blandisi – Holmberg – Ellis
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow

Lajoie – Niemelä
Kokkonen – Villeneuve
Rifai – Miller


Game Highlights: Marlies 7 vs. Moose 2

Post-Game Media Availability: Niemela, Bellows & Gruden