“They [Belleville] make it hard, but once we got inside (the dots), we had our opportunities. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to score. The effort was there, and I liked how we kept getting better as the game went on.”

– John Gruden

This was almost a copy-and-paste performance from the defeat to the same opponent just before Christmas. The Marlies were a little sloppy defensively, guilty of overplaying in possession, and really wasteful in front of goal en route to a 4-2 loss to Belleville on Boxing Day.

First Period

For the opening three minutes, Toronto appeared to have indulged too much in their Christmas festivities. The Marlies were sluggish in every aspect, allowing Belleville to test debutant Luke Cavallin twice inside 45 seconds.

The Marlies netminder stood up to the early test and was rewarded when Toronto scored out of the blue with 3:27 on the clock. After Ryan Tverberg won a key puck battle along the boards and chipped the puck clear to set a 2-on-1 break in motion, Logan Shaw set up Kieffer Bellows for his 11th of the campaign with a five-hole finish.

Toronto’s best opportunities to double their lead all fell to defensemen. From promising positions, Mikko Kokkonen and Max Lajoie barely tested Kevin Mandolese while Tommy Miller missed the target on arguably the best chance of the three.

Belleville didn’t record a shot during the game’s first power play, but they were gifted a tying marker with 5:15 remaining.

Cavallin produced a smart save to turn aside Roby Jarventie but could do nothing about Matthew Highmore’s finish on the rebound attempt. Toronto outnumbered the Senators defensively with all five skaters collapsing toward the home net, but the Marlies were slow to react and not as hungry for the puck as the two Senators on the scene.

The Marlies still could have taken a lead into the first intermission if they capitalized on any of their late chances. Kyle Clifford’s shot on a partial breakaway was pushed aside, and on the same shift, Josiah Slavin and Max Ellis were not clinical enough from the slot.

Second Period

The Marlies switched off early in the middle frame, allowing the Senators to grab a lead just 82 seconds in.

After Toronto was second to the puck a few times in the defensive zone, Belleville’s Jacob Larsson found Zack Ostapchuk in the slot for a tap-in. Nick Abruzzese wouldn’t have been pleased with his part in the goal, failing to cut out the pass or tie up the scorer.

Cavallin wasn’t at fault for either of the two goals and was showing he wasn’t short of confidence when leaving the crease to play the puck. That almost came back to bite him at the three-minute mark when a misplay gave Roby Jarventie a clear sight of Toronto’s net. Cavallin reacted in the nick of time, poke-checking the puck clear from his goal line.

The Marlies proceeded to dominate offensive-zone time in the second period but could not turn all of the puck possession into a second goal. Overpassing from below the dots was a factor, but there was also some poor finishing and a lack of second opportunities created.

Slavin fired wide from close range after great work from Ellis down-low. That was Toronto’s prime scoring chance, but other grade-A chances went begging for Dylan Gambrell (x2), Abruzzese, and Joseph Blandisi.

A pair of power plays frittered away as the Marlies found themselves trailing 2-1 after 40 minutes.

Third Period

With so much skill and offensive talent on the roster, I wonder if the new head coach has to reinforce to his group that it’s okay to simplify at times. That may have been the message in the second intermission as Toronto wasted little time in testing Mandolese to start the third period. Tverberg shot on the turn from the left circle on a feed from Logan Shaw, creating a rebound that just eluded Bellows.

A tying goal arrived at the two-minute mark courtesy of a mistake by the Belleville netminder.  Clifford and Steeves chased down a dump-in by the former and successfully regained possession thanks to a misplay by Mandolese. Usually the goal scorer, Steeves turned provider for Blandisi to tie the game at 2-2 with a wonderful forehand-backhand move.

The Marlies were in control until their third and final power play of the game. A really poor effort with the extra skater took the wind out of the sails of the Marlies, who then found themselves killing a penalty.

Ostapchuk scored on the Belleville power play from close range, a goal that Cavallin would want back, although he wasn’t given a ton of help on the shift by Toronto’s penalty killers.

In the remaining 11 minutes of regulation, Toronto did everything but score. Clifford, Tverberg, and Gambrell wasted excellent scoring chances before Blandisi struck the crossbar with two minutes left in regulation.

The worst missed opportunity of the game occurred with just 50 seconds to play. After pulling Cavallin for an extra attacker, Toronto laid siege to the Belleville net, and during a frantic sequence around the crease, a weird bounce off the backboards presented a gilt-edge chance for Ellis. Mandolese slid across and made the save — a tremendous stop, but the Marlies were simply not doing their part by bearing down on grade-A looks in this game.

An empty-net goal shortly afterward sealed the two points for a Belleville team that loves to dunk on their biggest rivals.

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies’ record against Belleville so far this season is 1-2-1. The teams will face off three more times in the next 19 days. 

Kieffer Bellows extended his point streak (5G/2A) to five games with the game-opening goal. It was encouraging to see linemate Ryan Tverberg take his opportunities to shoot in his game. His three shots were all recorded in the third period with one almost resulting in a rebound goal for Bellows. The rookie’s secondary assist was not only a smart play but also showed his ability to win battles along the boards.

“[Bellows – Shaw – Tverberg] were really going,” said Gruden. “It helps when you score early, but they seemed to be around the puck all afternoon. They had their chances and spent their time in the opposition’s end… I like that line.”

Joseph Blandisi’s sixth goal of the season brought up his 20th point. 

– It was a nice move by the organization to select this game at SBA for Luke Cavallin‘s AHL debut. He fared okay turning aside 19 shots and deserved a little more defensive and offensive support. 

“I thought [Cavallin] looked comfortable,” said Gruden. “He played the puck well and looked comfortable in net. There were a couple of tough bounces for him, but all in all, I thought he did a good job.”

– Tuesday’s lines:

Abruzzese – Gambrell – Steeves
Bellows – Shaw – Tverberg
Clifford – Blandisi – Solow
Ovchinnikov – Slavin – Ellis

Niemelä – Kokkonen
Rifai – Miller
Lajoie – Villeneuve


Post-Game Media Availability: Cavallin, Tverberg & Gruden

Game Highlights: Senators 4 vs. Marlies 2