“I thought we played extremely well but just not good enough. Our guys aren’t very confident right now, and we have to find a way to make them more confident.”

– John Gruden

The Toronto Marlies played some of their best hockey this season during the opening 40 minutes of this 2-1 loss on Wednesday night. At five-on-five, they dominated Cleveland, but a failure to turn puck possession into goal production ultimately cost them the result. The North Division leaders seized on two mistakes by the Marlies and never looked in danger of relinquishing their third-period lead.

First Period

Toronto’s coaching staff would have had mixed feelings about their team’s opening 20 minutes. The Marlies dominated possession and zone time at five-on-five, with Cleveland failing to register a shot during even-strength action.

Toronto earned one delay-of-game penalty through incessant pressure, but the Marlies‘ feckless power play failed to test goaltender Jet Greaves.

Back at even strength, a lapse in discipline almost cost the Marlies dearly. A dangerous cross-check by Tommy Miller put Cleveland on the power play at the seven-minute mark.

A passenger up until this point, Keith Petruzzelli deserves credit for pulling off a pair of good saves to deny Carson Meyer and Trey Fix-Wolansky. Matteo Pietroniro also blocked a couple of booming shots as the Toronto penalty killers stepped up to the plate.

The Marlies’ best chance to open the scoring arrived with 8:30 remaining in the frame. A broken play saw the puck fall to Kyle Clifford alone in the slot with half an empty net to aim at, but the veteran forward didn’t capitalize.

Scoring chances for Nick Abruzzese and Alex Steeves were denied by Jet Greaves, but otherwise, the Marlies were guilty of missing the net from promising positions.

A lazy hooking penalty by Josiah Slavin was followed by an equally unnecessary tripping by Joseph Blandisi as Slavin was about to exit the box. Petruzzelli was Toronto’s best penalty killer, turning aside three shots to ensure the game remained deadlocked heading into the intermission.

Second Period

The middle frame proved as frustrating as the first from Toronto’s perspective.

The Marlies did open up the scoring at the tail-end of an awful power play. Clifford, Kieffer Bellows, and Ryan Tverberg battled hard below the goal line to create a loose puck in the slot before Dylan Gambrell beat Greaves with a shot on the turn.

Toronto kept the pressure on with strong shifts following the goal from the fourth and third lines, but a second goal wasn’t forthcoming.

The lead lasted barely three minutes as Toronto gifted the North Division leaders a tying marker.

Defenseman Matteo Pietroniro added numbers to a rush led by Ryan Tverbeg, but a pass across the middle of the ice by the was easily intercepted, setting in motion an odd-man rush the other way. Keith Petruzzelli got a piece of Carson Meyer’s shot with his glove, but it was a goal on his short side that he would’ve liked back.

Toronto generated a plethora of opportunities to restore their lead, but poor finishing allied with nonexistent puck luck kept the game tied.

Gambrell arguably had a better chance than the one he scored on earlier in the game, but he was left frustrated on a later power play when his effort floated over Graves and somehow didn’t cross the goal line.

Abruzzese and Topi Niemelä were similarly frustrated after failing to capitalize from point-blank range on the man advantage. The same could also be said for Bellows, Gambrell, and Tverberg.

The Marlies misfired on three consecutive power plays, allowing Cleveland to escape the middle frame unscathed. While the shot total of 16 may indicate they were ‘goalie’d’, the truth was that Greaves did not have to extend himself all that much in the Monsters’ net.

Third Period

Maybe it was a lack of confidence for a team mired in a losing skid, but Toronto completely capitulated in the final frame and offered no response once they fell behind due to an early goal against.

Once Josiah Slavin fanned on a zone clearance, Toronto found themselves running around due to the forechecking pressure of Cleveland. The Marlies’ panic was palpable. Cameron Butler looked set to score, but Petruzzelli came up with his best save of the game. Unfortunately, the goaltender was let down by his teammates defensively and was beaten by Jake Gaudet’s finish on a feed from Roman Ahcan.

In the 16 or so minutes remaining, the Marlies mustered three shots on goal and created no high-danger chances. It took them until almost the 10-minute mark to record their first effort on goal as Cleveland simply out-worked a dispirited Marlies team.

The only good look for Toronto arrived shortly afterward following a good shift from the fourth line. Possession was worked to Niemelä in the high slot, where the defenseman fired wide.

Penalties didn’t help Toronto’s cause, but the Marlies’ PK units were a bright light in this performance. They killed consecutive infractions, including a 5-on-3 for 30 seconds.

This marked the fifth consecutive loss for Toronto, who have found offense incredibly difficult to come by during this poor run of form, finding the net just 10 times.

Post Game Notes

– Toronto’s penalty kill was a perfect five for five. It’s been a work in progress this season but now sits at 82.7%, which is better than average in the North Division.

– John Gruden made changes to his forward lines, but much to my confusion, Kyle Clifford remains in a top-six role. Logan Shaw‘s offensive game is hindered by centering Clifford and Joseph Blandisi. Surely, it would make more sense to provide Shaw, who has one of the best shots on the team, with a little more playmaking creativity on his wing.

– Toronto’s leading goal-scorer at even strength is Kieffer Bellows with 10, but he was shifted down to the third line. He connected well with Ryan Tverberg, but it’s clear that Max Ellis is struggling right now, a long way from the form that saw him open the season with a bang. 

Tverberg once again impressed when moved into the center position. It was something I noted in my previous post-game notes: He’s capable of driving play down the middle and has proven he’s comfortable leading zone exits and entries.

“You can see in the middle of the ice how fast [Tverberg] is,” said Gruden. “It is really evident to see. If you give him a little more room, he is dangerous. That was a bright spot for us. I thought he played extremely well.”

– Without the luxury of consistent starts, Keith Petruzzelli has struggled this season. Other than the first goal — which he would want back — I thought this was a solid 26-save performance given the circumstances. I expect him and Luke Cavallin to split the games against Syracuse.

“Keith played really well,” said Gruden. “He gave us a chance. He up two goals. We didn’t score any five-of-five goals. We are having a tough time. We are going to need more chaos, traffic, and to get to the areas where it’s harder to score but you get rewarded if you go there.”

– Life doesn’t get any easier for Toronto as they face two weekend home games against the second-placed team in the North Division. The Crunch have picked up just a pair of overtime losses in their last four games but have easily dispatched Toronto twice already this season.

– Wednesday’s lines:

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

Lajoie – Niemelä
Pietroniro – Miller
Gaunce – Kokkonen


Game Highlights: Monsters 2 vs. Marlies 1

Post-Game Media Availability: Gambrell & Gruden