“If it wasn’t for him [Dennis Hildeby], we would have had a tough climb ahead in the first period. Some of the saves he made were remarkable. He gave us a chance. He’s playing confident, and it’s really well done on his part.”
– John Gruden
Against Lehigh on Tuesday night, the Marlies wasted a stellar performance by netminder Dennis Hildeby, who deserved to at least avoid a regulation defeat based on the standard of his play. The Swedish netminder was the team’s best player in the game, especially in the opening frame, where he pulled all the stops despite several high-quality scoring chances for the Phantoms.
The lack of shots on goal by either team in the opening eight minutes of the game belies the fact that Lehigh was in almost complete control of the play. Their rugged, physical, and no-nonsense game plan of getting pucks in deep and establishing their forecheck and cycle game put the Marlies on their heels.
The action picked up a little toward the midway point of the period, and against the run of play, Toronto created the first grade-A chance. Joseph Blandisi probably should have broken the deadlock after connecting on a backdoor feed. It was a decent stop by Cal Peterson, but the Marlies forward would have liked that one back.
The Phantoms were frustrated at the other end 30 seconds later when Garrett Wilson teed up Rhett Gardner, who looked set to score on either his initial shot or the rebound. Hildeby produced a piece of daylight robbery to deny Gardner twice, and he repeated the trick shortly afterward.
A floated pass wasn’t dealt with by the Marlies and Wade Allison escaped on a breakaway, but Hildeby remained calm, didn’t bite early, and delivered an outstretched right pad save to keep the game scoreless.
The Marlies generated two chances by forcing turnovers in the neutral zone, but neither Kieffer Bellows nor Max Lajoie took advantage, and Toronto mustered just seven shots in the opening frame.
Lehigh continued to pressure the Marlies into mistakes and outwork Toronto, leading to another high-quality scoring chance in the final minute. A cross-seam pass found Jon-Randall Avon alone at the far post, where he looked set to score with a one-timer, but Hildeby threw himself from right to left to make yet another fantastic save, putting the exclamation mark on a tremendous first-period performance.
The Phantoms continued to dominate zone time early in the middle frame, but they were unable to turn puck possession into scoring chances.
Frustration was maybe setting in as Wilson took a lazy tripping penalty. A delay-of-game penalty then presented Toronto with a 5-on-3 power play for 51 seconds.
The Marlies’ power play has been terrible this season and remained disappointing in this game. Peterson made two comfortable saves as Lehigh survived the “scare” with nowhere near enough stress.
A third straight penalty gave the Marlies another bite at the apple, but they registered just one shot on goal, albeit it was a good chance for Max Ellis in the slot.
The Marlies’ special-teams struggles were further underlined when Lehigh capitalized on their first man-advantage of the game. The Phantoms moved the puck with precision and pace, carving Toronto open before Olle Lycksell scored a tap-in.
Dylan Gambrell had the opportunity for an immediate response, but the lack of a killer instinct in front of goal remains the biggest weakness of his game this season.
While the Marlies were shorthanded, Blandisi threatened with a good drive to the net, but he was hooked as he was about to shoot, drawing a penalty call on the play.
The Marlies couldn’t capitalize on a flurry of chances early in the final frame. A drive to the slot by Robert Mastrosimone caused havoc, resulting in three scoring chances in 20 seconds. Logan Shaw, Max Lajoie, and Matteo Pietroniro were all turned aside as Lehigh withstood a rare Toronto push.
The Marlies then wasted another power-play opportunity at the midway point of the period. Shaw’s shot produced a huge rebound, but none of his teammates were anywhere near it.
10 seconds after the penalty had expired, Lehigh doubled their lead through Wilson. Hildeby continued to play his part by robbing Gardner once again, this time on a breakaway.
With Alex Steeves out due to injury, it was down to the other red-hot player on the Marlies to give the Marlies some late hope. From the right circle, Kieffer Bellows delivered a sublime one-time finish on a feed from Blandisi.
Although Bellows also drew a penalty afterward, the Marlies recorded just two shots in the final five minutes of regulation as Lehigh saw out the most comfortable of one-goal victories.
Post Game Notes
– The Marlies’ power play went 0-6. Its ineffectiveness is costing the team points and must be greatly concerning the coaching staff. The Marlies have scored nine power-play goals in 15 games despite drawing the fifth-most penalties in the AHL.
– Dennis Hildeby turned aside 32 of 34 shots and deserved better than a regulation loss on his record. In his last five starts, the Swedish goaltender has given up two or fewer goals.
– It’s eight games and counting for Kieffer Bellows, who continues his streak of recording a point in every outing as a Marlie. With six goals and 12 points, he’s on pace to smash career highs in the AHL if he remains with the Marlies.
“We are going to need big strong guys [like Bellows] if we are going to win these types of games,” said Gruden.
– Alex Steeves, called up to the big club on Thursday, missed the game with an upper-body injury and is considered day-to-day.
– Tuesday’s lineup:
Bellows – Holmberg – Shaw
Abruzzese – Gambrell – Solow
Mastrosimone – Blandisi – Ellis
Suthers – Slavin
Pietroniro – Lajoie
Kokkonen – Villeneuve
Rifai – Miller