“Resiliency, special teams, and goaltending. Those three big things.”

Alex Steeves hit the nail on the head when breaking down the keys to the Toronto Marlies‘ 5-2 win in Charlotte on Saturday.

The team showed resiliency to fight back after shooting themselves in the foot at the end of the first period. It was a stark and welcome change after a recent run of form in which the Marlies repeatedly crumbled in the face of adversity.

First Period

The Marlies began the game with a pep in their step, drawing a penalty inside the opening minute. Dylan Gambrell led a 2v1 with the man advantage and chose the right option to shoot, but the centerman was a little unfortunate as Spencer Knight got a slight piece of his shot and the puck trickled agonizingly wide of the far post.

Toronto kept the momentum going at five-on-five, enjoying the lion’s share of possession and offensive-zone time without turning that into a plethora of quality scoring chances.

Zach Solow would have been disappointed not to test Knight more with an effort from the high slot, but his frustration was short-lived. Although neither recorded a point on the play, a relentless effort by Solow and Josiah Slavin prevented Charlotte from clearing their zone. The result was Joseph Blandisi picking up possession at the Checkers’ blue line as the Checkers scrambled to organize themselves amid a change. 

Blandisi dished off to Alex Steeves to his left, where it was heartening to see the winger trust his shot from the top of the circle. On a rebound, Steeves fired home from an acute angle.

Blandisi and Steeves nearly doubled the lead, but they couldn’t solve Knight as the Charlotte netminder kept his team within one.

The turning point of the period arrived with eight minutes remaining when Cameron Gaucne took a delay-of-game penalty. Up until that point, the Checkers had yet to register a shot on goal.

Dennis Hildeby made five saves during the penalty kill, none better than the wonderful double stop to rob Brendan Perlini and Jake Wise. But the tide began to turn as Charlotte built momentum off of the man advantage, which doesn’t excuse the manner in which the Marlies conceded two goals in a little over two minutes.

Ryan Tverberg found himself outmanned at the Charlotte blueline and was stripped of possession, leading to an odd-man rush as the Marlies were caught with numbers above the puck. The Checkers transitioned with speed and worked the puck around effortlessly as Michael Benning scored as the trailer on the play.

William Villeneuve won’t need the video coach to inform him that he should’ve played the second goal better. After winning an initial battle to gain possession low in the defensive zone, the defenseman failed to identify the danger around him. The veteran Zac Dalpe seized on the chance, teeing up Rasmus Asplund to score with a one-timer from the high slot.

Toronto’s penalty kill ensured the deficit was only one late in the frame, but the Marlies had once more thrown away a lead due to defensive breakdowns.

Second Period

Toronto broke the game wide open in the middle frame, although they did enjoy some luck in the process. Grant Cruikshank has made a strong impression since his recall and was rewarded for his relentless work rate after three minutes. Charlotte turned the puck over in the slot, but Cruikshank saw his attempt gloved by Knight.

The rookie forward then played a role in the tying goal as the period approached the seven-minute mark. Toronto harrassed Charlotte in the offensive zone following a dump-in and recovered possession before Cruikshank sent the puck back up the wall to Max Ellis at the left point.

The percentage play probably would have been to find Villenueve to his right, but Ellis chose to take a shot with no traffic. Defenseman Casey Fitzgerald appeared to try and block/or catch the shot but only deflected the puck past his netminder. The blue liner’s reaction in smashing his crossbar told the story as the Checkers gifted the Marlies a fortuitous tying goal.

The Marlies blew hot and cold through this game, and after a poor effort with the extra skater, were almost made to pay the price for a mistake. A turnover by Gaunce resulted in a breakaway for Gerry Mayhew. The former AHL MVP was hauled back in the process of getting his shot off, meaning Hildeby had to face a penalty shot.

After getting beat in his last start on a penalty shot, the Swedish netminder was in no mood for a repeat and denied Mayhew in the one-on-one battle.

The dynamic duo of Tverberg of Kieffer Bellows attempted to hoist the Marlies into a lead back at five-on-five. The veteran was unable to finish from close range after excellent set-up work by the rookie.

The Marlies’ power play finally clicked inside the final four minutes, scoring twice to give Toronto a healthy lead heading into the second intermission. Tverberg rifled home from the left circle unattended with Charlotte overloaded on the opposite side.

Logan Shaw had not found the net in the eight games previous, which for him is an incredibly long stretch without a goal. He threw that monkey off his back with a patented one-time blast from the left circle to give Toronto a 4-2 lead.

Third Period

Toronto did not make life easy for themselves early in the final frame. A failure to clear the zone allowed Charlotte to build considerable pressure in the first two minutes. Dennis Hildeby stood tall, turning aside two shots through traffic as the Checkers crashed the net at every opportunity.

Following a penalty kill at the end of the middle frame, the Marlies PKers were given more work to do in the first half of the third period. After negating an infraction to Solow, Blandisi and Shaw took penalties just 60 seconds apart.

The trio of Max Lajoie, Tommy Miller, and Gambrell stepped up to the plate in a big way. Gambrell won a defensive-zone faceoff, Lajoie made two important clearances, and Miller performed his task admirably. There was also Hildeby, who not only made two huge saves but prevented any second opportunities.

It was a big moment for a Marlies team shy on confidence, and it almost got even better once Shaw’s penalty expired. After Cruikshank put his body on the line to block a booming shot, the puck rebounded into the neutral zone for Shaw to streak away toward the Checkers’ net. Neither Shaw nor Cruikshank could jam the puck past Knight, who made a good double save.

Slavin should have made the game safe with eight minutes remaining, but he sent his effort off the top of the crossbar from the slot after Lajoie’s initial effort created a rebound.

Charlotte went for broke relatively early, pulling Knight with four minutes remaining. Shaw netted his second of the game to secure victory following another typically hardworking shift by Blandisi to set up a tap-in.

Post Game Notes

– The power play went 2-for-4 and the penalty kill kept a clean sheet despite six penalties.

“One thing that was different from [a lot of the losses] was the result, winning the special teams game, and killing off those penalties,” said John Gruden. “The timing of the goals, the timing of our ability to kill those penalties, and the big saves was the key for us. It is nice to see that we can do it. Hopefully, it propels us… We are plus in the department of goals for vs. against at five-on-five, so if we can start winning more of these special-teams games, we are going to win more consistently.”

– It was an interesting decision to move Dylan Gambrell to the wing but one I thought paid dividends for the player and team. You rarely see two rookies playing at the center position, but neither Ryan Tverberg nor Grant Cruikshank let the team down. I may not agree with all of Gruden’s decisions regarding his lineup of late, but I applaud his boldness.

Speaking of Tverberg, his seventh goal of the season keeps him at a point-per-game pace through 19 games (7G/12A).

– It’s critical for the Marlies’ fortunes that captain Logan Shaw finds scoring form. After going five games without a point and eight without a goal, a pair of goals will do his confidence the world of good at the start of a lengthy road trip.

– Another player going through somewhat of an uncharacteristic barren spell was Alex Steeves, who had one goal and three assists in his previous nine games before this outing. This was his first multi-point haul (1G/1A) in over a month, and he looked dynamic with new linemates Cruikshank and Max Ellis.

– It’s encouraging that the Marlies’ scoring was spread around with 10 players recording at least a point in this game. That included Max Lajoie and Joseph Blandisi, who both registered a pair of helpers.

– Seemingly nothing fazes Dennis Hildeby. Pulled in his lasting outing after giving up three goals on 11 shots (not his fault), the Swedish netminder responded with a 24-save performance for the victory. The big-save ability at critical times showed on the penalty shot with the game tied at 2-2.

– Saturday’s lineup:

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

Lajoie – Miller
Kokkonen – Niemelä
Gaunce – Villeneuve


Post-Game Media Availability: Steeves, Blandisi & Gruden