“We are not willing to do things simple. Maybe just end the game after 40 minutes next time because it’s getting a little ridiculous now.

“If they [the players] don’t realize by now what is going to help them win games, then we have to find a different message.

“We are playing like rookies — like first year-year pros — when we get into these moments. It is not just the young guys. It is everyone. It is someone different every time… I am kind of lost for words because it is the same old thing. They play so hard and work, but we are not getting the results we want.”

– John Gruden

The frustration was palpable when head coach John Gruden spoke after this 6-3 defeat to Syracuse on Saturday. It was another performance in which the Marlies frittered away two leads before capitulating in the third period.

Most of the blame lies at the feet of the players, but there also needs to be some accountability from the head coach concerning ice time, deployment, and lineup decisions.

First Period

Syracuse may have taken the game away from Toronto early on if not for a sharp start by Keith Petruzzelli in net.

Gage Concalves and Gabriel Dumont both created grade-A scoring chances inside four minutes amid poor defensive coverage by the Marlies. Petruzzelli turned both chances aside with spectacular saves and then made another three big stops on a Syracuse power play shortly afterward.

At the other end, Toronto opened the scoring at the seven-minute mark against the run of play. Ryan Tverberg won an offensive-zone draw in the right circle back to Joseph Blandisi, who shifted a few feet to his left before beating Matt Tomkins with a shot inside the far post.

The Marlies settled into the game after scoring first, although they couldn’t convert possession into high-quality scoring chances.

A needless hooking penalty from Kiefer Bellows allowed Syracuse to tie the game on their second man-advantage. A point shot by Concalves was deflected twice, first by Joe Carroll and then Dumont, giving Petruzzelli no chance.

The Marlies responded in kind to take a one-goal lead into the first intermission. The puck was moved up top by Topi Niemelä, Blandisi, and Alex Steeves before Nick Abruzzese wired home a one-timer from the right circle.

Second Period

Toronto created and wasted many excellent quality scoring chances in the middle frame. Teams do get ‘goalie’d’ on occasion, but it’s extra frustrating not to bear down against a below-average AHL netminder.

The Marlies were excellent during four-on-action action inside the first minute, generating two Grade-A scoring chances. Abruzzese failed to score on his, although he should have drawn a penalty in the process.  A fantastic shot block by Matteo Pietroniro then sprung Steeves on a breakaway, but Steeves sent a weak backhand shot into the chest of the Syracuse netminder.

After exiting the box, Concalves forced another good save out of Petruzzelli, setting in motion another breakaway for Toronto. This time, Bellows’ attempt came up empty.

Additional chances for Blandisi, Bellows, and Tvergberg went begging before the inevitable arrived six minutes into the period. Toronto handed Syracuse a tying goal in transition — an odd-man rush turned into Jack Finley splitting Max Lajoie and Niemelä before scoring with a low finish.

Bellows and Blandisi then failed to capitalize on chances from the doorstep; the latter had half a net to aim at before sliding the puck into the pads of Tomkins.

Toronto could not score on a power play on their second opportunity and did not generate the same number of high-quality scoring chances in the second half of the frame. Neither did Syracuse, who were hanging on and thankful for the wasted opportunities by the Marlies.

The Crunch ended the period with a man advantage resulting in the most dominant penalty kill I’ve seen from Toronto for a long while. The Marlies controlled possession for 80 seconds of the kill and even created a couple of good looks at goal — a remarkable sequence that ensured the game remained tied at 2-2 through 40 minutes.

Third Period

Toronto killed the remainder of the penalty carrying over from the end of the second period before promptly drawing a power play.

On the ensuing man advantage, Dylan Gambrell rang a shot off the iron and Kyle Clifford couldn’t scoop home a big rebound following an initial shot by Bellows.

That was a big turning point for the Marlies, who fell apart as soon as the penalty expired. After a turnover created a Syracuse odd-man rush, Joe Caroll scored fresh out of the box.

The Crunch doubled their lead 96 seconds later when Caroll led a 2-on-1 break after outworking Toronto in his defensive zone.  It was now 4-2 Syracuse inside five minutes of the third period.

The Marlies wasted two consecutive power plays and were lucky not to allow a shorthanded goal. Dumont struck the underside of the bar, and as the second penalty expired, Syracuse went on yet another odd-man rush. Petruzzelli must have felt like his teammates had abandoned him by this point, but he made a spectacular save.

The Marlies threatened to make the game somewhat interesting with a goal following a TV timeout. Bellows beat Tomkins cleanly from the top of the circles with an effort that the Syracuse netminder should have stopped. 

The game remained 4-3 for only 100 seconds as the Marlies continued to be generous defensively. Cole Koepke beat Marshall Rfiai in a foot race for a lofted pass, shrugging off the defenseman before sending the puck into the top corner of the net past a clearly frustrated Petruzzelli.

Koepke scored an empty netter in the dying seconds to rub salt in the Marlies’ wound.

Post Game Notes

– This was Toronto’s fourth consecutive loss on home ice. Their record at Coca-Cola Coliseum now sits at 7-7-3. The Marlies have won just three of 15 games against division opponents this season.

– The play of Ryan Tverberg continues to impress despite the carnage around him. A pair of five-on-five primary assists take him to 13 points (2G/11A) in 15 games. “He is playing hard,” said Gruden. “He is engaged. He is going to the tough areas. For a first-year guy, he has come along nicely. That is one of the brighter spots for this team.”

Logan Shaw doesn’t have a point at five-on-five in the last three games (one power-play assist) and generally hasn’t posed the same scoring threat that saw him accrue a career-best 69 points last season. I’ll keep banging this drum — I’m sorry if it’s becoming repetitive — but Gruden has to move away from Kyle Clifford in the top six. It simply doesn’t work (as seen last season), plus there are many better alternatives available.

– Saturday’s lines:

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

Lajoie – Niemelä
Pietroniro – Villeneuve
Rifai – Kokkonen


Post-Game Media Availability: John Gruden

Game Highlights: Crunch 6 vs. Marlies 3