“We knew [Belleville] were going to come out hard and they scored three quick goals. We had a couple of lapses on our defense — a couple of breakdowns — and the next thing you know they are up 2-0 and then 3-0. We tried to claw our way back… At least we gave a gallant effort. At least we came back from it. But it wasn’t good enough — bottom line.”

– John Gruden

Following a run of eight defeats in nine games, the Toronto Marlies find themselves in sixth place in the North Division, outside of a playoff spot.

This defeat was as infuriating as any so far this season. Belleville is not a better hockey team than Toronto as the Marlies showed when they completely dominated the Senators in the middle frame of this game and during Friday’s 8-0 victory. 

The Marlies‘ propensity to not start on time, take the foot off the pedal for sizable chunks of the game, and their breakdowns defensively are undermining a team that should be much more competitive than their current record of 14-13-6.

First Period

The first period was a typical example of what’s been ailing Toronto this season as they spotted the Senators a 3-0 lead inside 13 minutes.

As expected, Belleville came out hard in a fast-paced start that didn’t feature a whistle until the five-minute mark. The Marlies withstood the initial onslaught, with Dennis Hildeby making some solid saves and denying the Senators any second opportunities.

On Toronto’s first attack of note, Joseph Blandisi struck the crossbar from close range and Kieffer Bellows saw his effort gloved by Leevi Merilainen.

Brenna Saulnier’s penalty presented Toronto with the first man advantage of the game, but the result was a momentum change in the other direction as the Marlies failed to register a shot with the extra skater and promptly conceded a goal 21 seconds after the penalty expired.

Egor Sokolov — the only really offensively-gifted player on the Sens roster — was allowed a free run to the Marlies’ net, where he delivered an inch-perfect backhand finish.

Another defensive breakdown resulted in a breakaway for Kyle Betts, but he was impeded while trying to get a shot off. The officials called it hooking and awarded Betts a penalty shot, which he finished past Hildeby.

Belleville netted a third goal in this crazy four-minute span, and this one was perhaps the worst of the bunch from Toronto’s perspective. Max Lajoie lost possession at the Sens’ blue line when attempting to make a low-percentage play. Belleville transitioned with speed, and with the Marlies out of sorts in the defensive zone, Tommy Miller took a tripping penalty under duress. 

Two avoidable mistakes resulted in a power play that Belleville capitalized on through Josh Currie.

That signaled the end of the game for Hildeby, who was let down by his teammates and replaced by Keith Petruzzelli.

The remainder of the period featured a flurry of penalties, and unsurprisingly the majority of them were for roughing and fighting.  Frustratingly, the Marlies out-shot the Senators 7-0 in the final four minutes, but neither Lajoie nor Alex Steeves (x2) were clinical enough to make a dent in the 3-0 deficit.

Second Period

Toronto carried over the strong finish from the first period into the second. Blandisi found Bellows storming down the heart of the slot, where the recently signed winger’s shot found the roof of the Senators’ net.

29 seconds later, Toronto drew within one. Grant Cruickshank got a piece of a shot by Steeves to deceive Merilainen as the Marlies scored a second goal inside the opening two minutes of the middle frame.

It was nearly a tied game after the restart of play. On a broken play, Josiah Slavin cut across the crease looking to slide the puck in behind Merilainen, but he lost the handle at the critical moment.

Petruzzelli didn’t have to make a save of note as Toronto searched for a tying marker.  There were opportunities for Cruikshank, Bellows, and Solow, but a third Marlies goal was not forthcoming.

Third Period

Toronto fired six shots without response in the first eight minutes of the final frame, but none were from high-danger areas as Belleville comfortably handled the push from the Marlies to start the period.

90 seconds later, the Senators scored a fourth as Jiri Smejkal redirected a shot from the left boards by Sokolov.

That goal sucked the life out of the Marlies. Belleville added a fifth and sixth goal via Jacob Larsson and Smejkal to rub further salt into the wound.

Beginning a nine-game road trip with a loss to a division rival is bad enough, but the level of competition only rises from this point onward. The Marlies will face four opponents from the notably tough Atlantic Division, including the league-leading Hershey Bears. There is then the challenge of the North Division-leading Cleveland Monsters before finishing it off with a pair of games against the resurgent Utica Comets, who are on a six-game point streak.

Post Game Notes

– After the expiration of his PTO, Kieffer Bellows agreed to terms on an AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies. He filed yet another exemplary performance but was likely frustrated by only leaving the game with one goal.

– Despite the carnage that continues to surround him on the team, Ryan Tverberg continues to put in above-average performances, whether or not he’s recording points. He and Bellows have formed an excellent partnership, continuously Toronto’s best line at five-on-five regardless of who plays on the right wing.

Grant Cruikshank has been tearing up the ECHL (16G/14A in 28 games) in his rookie season, albeit as a 25-year-old. He was noticeable in a positive fashion, especially during the second period playing center with Alex Steeves and Max Ellis. The goal was his first in the American Hockey League.

“[Cruikshank] works and has a motor on him,” said Gruden. “He can skate and he’s strong. It was nice for him to get on the scoreboard. He got on the inside and the shot went off of him. That is the one positive for today.”

Topi Niemelä extended his assist streak to four games (4A) with the secondary helper on Cruikshank’s goal.

Marshall Rifai missed the game with an upper-body injury and is considered week-to-week. Kyle Clifford was handed a three-game suspension for his actions in Friday’s 8-0 against Belleville.

– Sunday’s lines:

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

Lajoie – Miller
Kokkonen – Niemelä
Gaunce – Villeneuve


Post-Game Media Availability: John Gruden