The final 4-3 scoreline flattered the Toronto Marlies, who were second-best for 40 minutes of this game in Syracuse on Friday night.
Special teams, puck management, decision-making, and finishing were all subpar by the Marlies, who dug themselves into a three-goal hole by the midway point of the game.
There were just three whistles in the opening nine minutes of the opening period. Syracuse dominated possession and offensive-zone time in a fast-paced start, but they could not find the first goal. Dennis Hildeby wasn’t overly challenged, but he was impressive in not giving up any second opportunities.
Toronto’s first scoring opportunity brought about the third whistle. A misfired shot by Syracuse rang around the boards and allowed Joseph Blandisi to escape down the right wing. On the resulting play, Dmitry Ovchinnikov, Max Ellis, and Blandisi all saw their shots turned away. The latter two should have buried their chances.
60 seconds later, Dylan Gambrell found Topi Niemelä alone at the top of the slot, but the Finnish defenseman’s effort was easily clung onto by Matt Tomkins.
Toronto’s power play continued its recent struggles. There was one shot on goal by Pontus Holmberg, but otherwise, the Marlies were a hot mess with the man advantage. A giveaway by Alex Steeves in the crease should have resulted in a goal for Maxim Groshev, but Hildeby pulled off a wonderful reflex pad save.
To rub salt into the wound, Syracuse scored four seconds into their first-man advantage. With acres of space, Mitchell Chaffee rifled home a shot from the left circle.
Toronto was able to kill off a second penalty but fell asleep in the dying moments of the frame to fall two behind. The Marlies failed to clear the puck down the wall before Syracuse worked possession back to the point, where Jack Thompson’s rasping drive was tipped in front by Shawn Element to beat the buzzer by 1.5 seconds.
The middle frame was essentially a special-teams battle, with neither team able to take advantage of the extra skater.
The only goal arrived 16 seconds before the midway point as the Marlies were a mess defensively. Syracuse toyed with Toronto as they exchanged passes before teeing up Gage Goncalves for a backdoor tap-in.
Scoring chances for Toronto were limited to two partial breakaways. Neither Gambrell nor Steeves were able to deliver a telling finish.
The Crunch could have put the result beyond doubt after a mistake from Logan Shaw led to an odd-man rush, but Gabriel Dumont missed the target much to the relief of the beleaguered Hildeby.
Two things can be true at the same time: Toronto performed better in the third period but Syracuse also took their foot off the gas, taking a preventive approach with the lead.
An early power only resulted in a fantastic chance for the Crunch to nab a fourth goal. Nick Abruzzese turned the puck over, allowing Tristan Allard to escape on a partial breakaway, but the reliable Hildeby bailed out his teammates again to keep the game tentatively in reach.
A spark arrived for Toronto on their next power play, where Abruzzese redeemed himself with a fantastic pass to Holmberg waiting by the side of the net for a tap-in. It was undoubtedly poor coverage by the Crunch PK, but finally scoring a well-worked power play goal energized the Marlies.
With 8:30 remaining, it should have been a one-goal game. A broken play resulted in a gift for Gambrell, who was alone in the slot with the puck on his stick, but the centerman struck the iron in a play that sums up his form offensively this year.
Late in the action with the Crunch looking to coast to victory, Toronto scored a 6-on-5 power-play goal. A defense-splitting pass by Steeves teed up Holmberg for another tap-in from close range.
With 96 seconds remaining, Toronto almost immediately pulled Hildeby. Any thought of completing an incredible comeback was quashed by Daniel Walcott, who recorded his eighth goal of the season as he eased the puck into the empty net.
A goal in the final seconds by Robert Mastrosimone was a nice moment for the rookie but no more than a consolation prize.
What might have been if Toronto turned up in the opening 40 minutes?
Post Game Notes
– Dennis Hildeby stopped 22 of 25 shots to post a .880 save percentage. Those are less-than-flattering statistics that don’t tell the true story of another strong performance by the netminder. He had no chance on any of the three goals and pulled off a handful of excellent saves to ensure this wasn’t a blowout loss.
– With a pair of goals for Pontus Holmberg, the Swedish centerman is beginning to show signs of a return to the offensive form he showed before he was called up to the Leafs. He also posted a season-high six shots.
– In his return to action at the AHL level, Alex Steeves extended his point streak to 12 games (11G/6A) with an assist.
– Topi Niemelä registered his first multi-point haul in North America. The defenseman had a hand in each goal and recorded a season-high five shots.
– It meant nothing in the game, but Robert Mastrosimone scored his first professional goal with a nice backhand finish. The 22-year-old’s playing style reminds me of Joseph Blandisi in a positive way. The fourth line including Mastrosimone, Josiah Slavin, and Zach Solow put in a good display, often spending the majority of their shifts in the Syracuse zone.
– Friday’s lineup:
Bellows – Holmberg – Shaw
Abruzzese – Gambrell – Steeves
Ovchinnikov – Blandisi – Ellis
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow
Kokkonen – Villeneuve
Pietroniro – Niemelä
Rifai – Miller