“There’s no quitting with this group. They haven’t quit all year. It’s just nice for them to get rewarded and to pull it off [the win] at the end there.”
– John Gruden
This 5-4 overtime win over Grand Rapids was far from a perfect performance by the Marlies, but their head coach was accurate in his summation. His team did not quit, even when faced with third-period adversity at the hands of the officials.
The Marlies created more high-quality scoring chances in the opening frame but found themselves trailing through 20 minutes.
Toronto capitalized on a mistake to open the scoring at the six-minute mark when Pontus Holmberg was the beneficiary behind the goal line, where he combined with Zach Solow to set up a tap-in for Dmitry Ovchinnikov.
The Griffins should have tied the game 90 seconds later. A brilliant individual effort by Topi Niemelä denied a certain goal as he deflected the puck high over the net with a save that Dennis Hildeby would have been proud to make.
It proved to be a wasted effort as Toronto gave up a goal straight from the restart of play, with a great degree of puck-watching happening in the defensive zone. Grand Rapids worked the puck around after winning the faceoff before Joel L’Esperance couldn’t miss from close range.
Hildeby was called into action early to make a good double save on Zach Aston-Reese, but he was largely an on-looker outside of the goal against and one stop on Maroc Kasper during a Griffins odd-man rush to keep the game tied at 1-1.
Toronto’s power play woes on home ice continued with a fairly toothless effort inside the final five minutes of regulation.
Somewhat against the run of play, the Marlies struck with 68 seconds remaining to take a lead into the first intermission. As a cycle play developed, Mikko Kokkonen pinched into the right circle and beat Michael Hutchinson short side with a one-time shot.
The middle frame was much closer in terms of creating quality scoring chances, but Toronto was fortunate that the Griffins couldn’t capitalize fully.
In the opening seconds, the Marlies conceded a fantastic chance to Taro Hirose alone in the slot, but the Griffins forward fired wide of the target.
The fourth line, which performed admirably when called on, created a chance for Robert Mastrosimone with a slick passing play at the four-minute mark. Unfortunately, the shot didn’t match the build-up play, and Hutchinson wasn’t tested.
The Marlies managed to kill off their first penalty of the game, but a defensive breakdown back at five-on-five action proved costly.
Albert Johansson was afforded the time and space to measure an effort from the slot, where his pinpoint shot found the top corner of Hildeby’s net.
Toronto has so rarely been ahead in recent games that it almost came as a surprise when they gained the lead for a third time.
Kyle Clifford appeared tenuously close to offside when taking Logan Shaw’s pass in his stride across the blue line. Hutchinson didn’t challenge the shooter and was left bemused as Clifford nearly whiffed and scored with a knuckleball shot.
A power play carrying over from the second period passed without incident for the Marlies, who set the pace back at five-on-five in pursuit of a tying goal.
Facing a delayed penalty, the Marlies collapsed toward their net as Jonatan Berggren scored unmarked from the top of the right circle to level the game at 3-3.
The delayed penalty was due to an elbowing call on Solow, who received five and game misconduct for the offense. On the replay, it was evident there was no intent to injure; Solow was looking to clear out his crease under pressure. An extremely harsh officiating decision presented Grand Rapids with a chance to take the game away from the Marlies.
It took the Griffins 68 seconds to take advantage of their good fortune and take a 4-3 lead. A one-timer from the left circle by Aston-Reese gave Hildeby no chance, but Toronto survived the remainder of the major penalty in part due to some good fortune, excellent goaltending, and desperate defending.
The Marlies recorded just one shot through the first 13 minutes of the third period and didn’t trouble Hutchinson on a power-play opportunity. Without Niemelä’s brilliant diving play to break up a 2v1, the Griffins likely would have scored a shorthanded tally and sealed the victory.
To Toronto’s credit, they kept plugging away and were rewarded with a tying goal inside the final four minutes. Two defensemen linked up to good effect as Mikko Kokkonen rounded the net after some good work initially by Shaw. The former picked out William Villeneuve in the right circle, where the Quebec native chose a perfect time to score his first goal of the campaign.
A couple of late saves by Hildeby preserved the point and sent the game to overtime.
The overtime period was 56 seconds of crazy, exhilarating action in which both teams felt they should have claimed the extra point. In the end, it was a big hit from Nick Abruzzese that allowed Blandisi to escape down the right wing.
Blender, as he is known by his teammates, cut across the crease and outwaited Hutchinson before sliding the puck by him to cue the wild celebrations.
A huge goal for the player and also the team, the relief was palpable as the Marlies snapped the six-game losing slump.
Post Game Notes
– After registering just one assist in the last seven appearances, this was a “monkey off the back” game for Joseph Blandisi. A trio of primary points represented his first three-point haul of the season (1G/2A).
“Joe has been getting a lot of chances but just hasn’t been finishing them,” said Gruden. “I am really glad for his confidence that he got this one done.”
– Mikko Kokkonen has always struck me as a defenseman whose skill set should allow him to contribute more offensively. He did just that in this game with his first multi-point haul (1G/1A) of the year. Hopefully, it’s a building block for the young blue-liner, who was given top-pairing minutes alongside fellow countryman Topi Niemelä. Kokkonen also recorded a season-high five shots on goal.
– The boxscore shows Kyle Clifford with two points (1G/1A), but what it doesn’t show is the number of plays that die on his stick (something I mentioned countless times last season when he was on a line with Pontus Holmberg). His skillset allows him to slot in lower in the lineup and still be an effective player. Logan Shaw requires at least one playmaking winger on his line, but he was less of a goal threat because of the composition of the first line.
– Dmitry Ovchinnikov scored his seventh goal of the campaign, of which six have come against Grand Rapids.
– Tuesday’s lineup:
Clifford – Shaw – Blandisi
Abruzzese – Gambrell – Bellows
Ovchinnikov – Holmberg – Solow
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Cruikshank
Kokkonen – Niemelä
Pietroniro – Villeneuve
Farrance – Miller