“[Belleville] plays hard, they play in straight lines, and they are what they are. They make it hard on you and are a good forechecking team… We have to be tighter in certain parts [of our game], but for the most part, I thought we played a pretty solid game.”

– John Gruden

After the Toronto Marlies beat some strong opponents in recent games, this loss to a sub-par divisional rival stings — not only because of the regulation loss but also the manner of the defeat. 

The power play struggled and bad habits crept into Toronto’s game in a contest they should have won comfortably. They twice allowed the Senators to respond to a goal against inside 40 seconds, a troubling trait at the beginning of the season that was seemingly rectified only to rear its ugly head in this 4-3 loss in Belleville on Friday night.

First Period

In the Christmas theme of giving, Belleville presented Toronto with an early present in the form of an unforced defensive-zone turnover. With just 1:14 played, Kieffer Bellows seized on a rebound and Logan Shaw was on hand to score from close range.

The lead lasted 24 seconds as Dennis Hildeby could not locate a point shot by Tyler Boucher through a plethora of traffic in front. Maxime Lajoie could’ve done a better job on the box out to keep a clearer sightline at the top of the crease.

Toronto created one scoring chance on their first power play of the game. Kyle Clifford needed to elevate the puck in tight, and Kevin Mandolese made a sliding right-pad save. Otherwise, the Marlies were a hot mess with the man advantage and would have conceded a shorthanded tally if not for Hidleby robbing Matthew Highmore on a breakaway.

Toronto generated plenty of possession time but did very little with it offensively at five-on-five, mostly playing on the perimeter versus getting to the inside.

At the other end, Cole Reinhardt hit the crossbar following a defensive breakdown by Toronto. With Hildeby out of position, hitting the net would have given the Senators a 1-0 lead through 20 minutes.

Second Period

Toronto should have taken the game from Belleville in the middle frame, generating enough scoring chances to lock down the two points. 

The power play continued to struggle, generating no quality scoring chances through two opportunities (minus 20 seconds). The Marlies were much better at five-on-five but were wasteful in front of goal.

Developing some strong chemistry, the third line generated two scoring chances at the eight-minute mark. Clifford’s shot from the right circle was stopped by the Senators netminder before Solow had an even better look in the opposite circle but whiffed on his attempt.

The third line deservedly broke the deadlock four minutes later, scoring in a manner that surprised nobody. Max Lajoie let fly from the point, and Clifford redirected the puck by Mandolese while parked out in front of the net.

Bellows’ finishing eluded him twice on the same shift following excellent build-up play by Ryan Tverberg as chances came and went with regularity for Toronto. Joseph Blandisi was also guilty of missing a guilty of gilt-edge opportunity, and the Marlies were forced to settle for a single goal in the second frame.

The missed opportunities made the tying goal with 42 seconds left in the period especially hard to swallow.

Garrett Pilon sliced through the Marlies‘ entry defense as he drove into the slot. Roby Jarventie found some space at the back post to score from close range as Toronto broke down defensively despite having numbers back.

Third Period

Since their conception as a franchise, Belleville has always reserved its best performances for Toronto. They’re not often the most talented of teams, but the chance to put one over their nearest rivals usually leads to a strong, relentless forecheck and full effort from the Senators.

That is exactly how Belleville took a 3-2 lead 25 seconds into the third period when Toronto lost a battle along the backboards and no one reacted quickly enough to pick up Zack Ostapchuk, who scored from the slot.

Nick Abruzzese had the chance to produce a quick response but fired wide of the target from the middle of the slot.

The Marlies stayed competitive by killing off consecutive penalties after some more careless play, this time by Josiah Slavin and Clifford.

Barring one scoring chance for Dylan Gambrell, Toronto looked to be heading to defeat with a whimper until the third line struck for a second time in the game with 1:32 remaining.

Cameron Gaunce took the point shot on this occasion, with lots of traffic on hand around the crease. Again, it was Clifford who applied the touch when parked in front to tie the game at 3-3.

Collecting at least a point on the road following a condensed schedule wouldn’t have been the worst result.  Instead, Belleville scored the eventual game-winner 38 seconds later.

The Senators simply out-worked Toronto and got their just reward when Lassi Thomson’s long-range effort was redirected in front by Highmore.

It wasn’t the way the Marlies wanted to enter their mini-Christmas break, but the chance to avenge the defeat against Belleville is around the corner on Boxing Day at the SBA.

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies’ record of 13-8-4 is good for third place in the North. With their next eight games coming against division rivals, Toronto’s record against teams in the North (3-4-4) needs to improve if they wish to remain in a playoff berth. 

– The Marlies’ third line stepped up to the plate offensively, taking some pressure off the top six. Kyle Clifford is highly effective down low and dominated that area for the entire game. He deserved his two goals and should have scored at least one more.

“[Clifford] plays in the trenches,” said Gruden. “He likes these types of games. That’s how he has made a living. That is why he is still a good player and is very effective for us.”

Logan Shaw scored his fourth goal in as many games, but this was a mixed performance from Toronto’s captain despite registering a game-high six shots on goal.

– Moved back to the wing for this game, Ryan Tverberg continued to impress. He created three scoring chances for teammates, although if I had a criticism of him, I’d like to see the rookie shoot a little more. He’s gone six games without recording a shot on goal and teams will wise up to his tendency to defer over time.

– Last but not least, I wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas if you’re celebrating. I hope you get to spend some quality time with those who mean the most to you during the holiday season. I’ll see you back here on Boxing Day.

– Friday’s lines:

Abruzzese – Gambrell- Steeves
Bellows – Shaw  – Tverber
Clifford – Blandisi – Solow
Ovchinnikov – Slavin – Mastrosimone

Lajoie – Miller
Kokkonen – Niemelä
Pietroniro – Gaunce


Post-Game Media Availability: Gaunce & Gruden

Game Highlights: Senators 4 vs. Marlies 3