“It was a gutsy win and well-deserved on our part.”
– John Gruden
This was as stern of a test as the Toronto Marlies have faced recently. Entering this game, Hartford owned the third-highest points percentage in the league and the second-best home record.
Despite blowing a two-goal lead and trailing after 40 minutes, the Marlies dug deep to tie the game before finding a way past the Wolf Pack in overtime by a score of 4-3.
The opening frame was fast-paced but lacking in offensive quality by either team.
The Marlies earned consecutive power plays, creating some good looks on the first opportunity before wasting the second man advantage.
It came out of the blue when the deadlock was broken at the 13-minute mark. Dmitry Ovchinnikov drove hard around the net with a wraparound attempt, providing a rebound that Kieffer Bellows jammed in from close range.
Hartford created plenty of opportunities off the rush, but their final pass or shot was off the mark as Keith Petruzzelli was forced into making only three saves of note through 20 minutes.
The Marlies killed a penalty carrying over from the first period, but they looked out of sorts immediately afterward and continually iced the puck.
The Wolf Pack were caught cold at the five-minute mark when Toronto netted their second and arguably nicest goal of the game. Dylan Gambrell, Alex Steeves, and Nick Abruzzese combined on a tic-tac-toe play that was finished off by Abruzzese.
The Marlies looked comfortable with a two-goal lead against a shell-shocked Hartford team until presenting the Wolf Pack with an early Christmas gift at the midway point of the game.
Carbon copy goals just 38 seconds apart tied the score at 2-2. Turnovers below the goal line and poor defensive coverage resulted in goals for Matt Rempe and Alex Belzile. Petruzzelli would have been disappointed with his effort in the first goal, but he could do nothing about the second.
For the remainder of the period, it was one-way traffic in Hartford’s favour. Inevitably, the Wolf Pack struck for a third time with 2:10 remaining.
Adam Edstrom’s initial effort from the side of the net was stopped by Petruzzelli, who overplayed it at his near post. Edstrom collected his own rebound and scored easily on the wraparound.
Another mistake by Petruzzelli early in the third frame should have seen Hartford take a decisive two-goal advantage. With the goaltender swimming out of position, Mikko Kokkonen played the role of netminder, making an incredible save from the blue paint to deny what looked like a sure goal.
The Marlies struggled to generate many high-quality scoring chances in the final frame of regulation, but they struck at the five-minute mark with a rare piece of offensive quality.
Joseph Blandisi drove hard down the middle of the ice and into the slot before dishing off to his right. Not known for his scoring prowess, Zach Solow dropped his shoulder and faked out the goaltender before beating him short side with a finish up high.
Credit should be given to Petruzzelli for battling all game long despite the adversity. He pulled off a handful of excellent saves, including on a partial breakaway, to make sure Toronto earned a point. The penalty kill also deserves some recognition for staving off a Hartford power play in the final four minutes of regulation.
Hartford should have won the game on a fantastic chance for Riley Nash alone in the slot before the Marlies claimed the extra point at the other end.
It was all about Petruzzelli, who not only made a glove save at full stretch to his left but also showed the foresight to kick the loose puck and send Nick Abruzzese off to the races. On the ensuing 2-on-1 break, Abruzzese teed up Niemelä to slap the puck by Dylan Garand.
Topi Niemela buries his 5th of the season on the OT winner.
He’s up to 15 points in 21 games this season pic.twitter.com/3oXIST0QNm
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) December 17, 2023
It was by no means pretty or a textbook victory, but the points count all the same in the standings.
Post Game Notes
– Alex Steeves extended his franchise-record-setting point streak to 15 games (11G/10A) with an assist on the second goal.
– Don’t look now, but Topi Niemelä has goals in three straight games. The overtime goal was the first game-winner of his career and took him to the 15-point mark (5G/10A) through 21 games.
– Keith Petruzzelli turned aside 28 shots to pick up his first win since November 10. He performed like a goaltender playing his second start in four weeks. It was clear that his timing and positioning were off on occasion. Give Petruzzelli a huge amount of credit for staying positive, mentally focused, and staying in the fight to make an incredible play in overtime.
“We have to remember that [Petruzzelli] hasn’t played many games this year,” said Gruden. “I am just glad he fought through it. He was huge for us and made some really big saves late in the second period. He carried it over into the third period and overtime.”
– Sunday’s lineup:
Bellows – Shaw – Tverberg
Abruzzese – Gambrell – Steeves
Clifford – Blandisi – Ovchinnikov
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow
Kokkonen – Niemelä
Gaunce – Villeneuve
Pietroniro – Miller