“If you look at the style of play and the non-quit in our group, there are a lot of positives to take away.”

– John Gruden

The Toronto Marlies head coach tried to look at the bright side after losing a 7-5 game his team should have at least taken a point from. 

From my perspective, it was Groundhog Day for a group that continues to find ways to lose close games. Toronto fell in an early hole and kept clawing their way back into the game — no doubt, the resiliency shown in tying the game on four separate occasions is admirable — but the Marlies‘ propensity to give up goals so quickly after scoring is a bad habit they can’t seem to kick.

It’s costing them points and is a big reason they sit outside of a playoff spot at the midway point of their season.

First Period

The Marlies reverted to type in the opening frame, spotting the Monsters a 2-0 lead. If Dennis Hildeby wasn’t so sharp early, the game would have been over as a contest after just 20 minutes.

The Swedish goaltender denied Roman Ahcan with an excellent poke-check as the Monsters went on a 2v1 at the five-minute mark.

Cleveland sauntered into the lead by scoring twice in three minutes, starting at the mid-point of the period. Jake Christian was given too much time at the point and maneuvered himself inside the left circle before firing home his eighth of the season.

A giveaway by Kieffer Bellows presented Mikael Pyyhtia with a grade-A chance from the slot, but Hildeby once again came to the team’s rescue. 

The respite was temporary. Following a wraparound attempt by Justin Pearson, Tyler Angle scored on a rebound as three Marlies stood around and puck-watched — a perfect encapsulation of Toronto’s first-period performance.

The Marlies rarely threatened the Cleveland net; one good look for Topi Niemelä on the power play was their only chance of note in the opening 15 minutes.

Toronto’s fourth line was a bright spot, generating the Marlies’ best scoring chance of the period. Zach Solow escaped on a breakaway and was unlucky not to score with his five-hole attempt; Jet Greaves got enough of the shot without knowing much about the save as the puck trickled wide.

A giveaway by William Villeneuve almost resulted in a later third goal for Cleveland if not for Hildeby’s double save which included a flying acrobatic effort to deny a wraparound by Mikael Pyyhtia.

Second Period

The Marlies killed a penalty carrying over from the first period and took the game to Cleveland back at five-on-five.

The fourth line was the spark plug once again as the deceptively quick Robert Mastrosimone turned a broken play at the Marlies’ blue line into a breakaway. Slashed twice as his shot was stopped by Graves, he drew a power play which turned into a 5-on-3.

On the two-man advantage, Alex Steeves halved the deficit by wiring the puck over the left shoulder of Greaves.

Toronto tied the game up at two by netting a second just before the midway mark of the game.

Back in the lineup following his suspension, Kyle Clifford had a high-event shift, to say the least. He led a 2v1 and chose to shoot high, leaving Mikko Kokkonen without a rebound opportunity after Graves made a shoulder save. Seconds later, a shot by Steeves resulted in a rebound in the crease that was a tap-in that Clifford couldn’t finish off. With the Monsters running around, Clifford found himself in front of the net again and chose to go upstairs again, this time beating Greaves over his shoulder.

It was nothing more than Toronto deserved after their dominance in the first half of the period, with Cleveland opting to call a timeout after the goal to regroup.

The Marlies should have taken a lead into the final frame but their finishing deserted them in the final 10 minutes of the second period. Nick Abruzzese and Bellows missed the target from the slot, and the power play could not generate enough quality chances to break the deadlock.

Cleveland’s third goal owed much to their home rink, which is notorious for its weird bounces. The Zamboni door to Hildeby’s right produced a rebound that saw the puck ricochet out to Tyler Angle alone in the slot, where the Cleveland forward took full advantage of his good fortune.

There was still time left in the period for Toronto to kill a late-period penalty and feel slightly hard done by. As Kokkonenn exited the box, the Finnish defenseman collected possession to lead a 2v1 and selected the correct option to shoot, but he sent his effort off the nexus of the cross-bar and post.

Third Period

Toronto’s penalty kill continued to give them a chance to win, killing off an early infraction,  and the momentum carried over onto the next couple of shifts leading up to the tying goal. Tverberg and Bellows connected around the net, and while the rookie’s shot from close range was turned aside, the rebound fell kindly for Joseph Blandisi to finish off.

Cleveland regained the lead 101 seconds later when Cole Clayton skated into the right circle untouched and sent a shot into the far top corner of Hildeby’s net. The Swedish netminder will likely be disappointed to have allowed this one, but in fairness, it was a pinpoint accurate effort.

Toronto didn’t lie down, striking back to score a fourth that owed more to the set-up than the finish. A long stretch pass by Max Lajoie allowed Blandisi to motor down the right wing, where he saw off the attention of one defender and faked to go around the net before sending a pass past two Cleveland players out into the slot for Clifford to tap home. The setup work was quality, but credit to Clifford for driving the net hard.

The Marlies generated chances to take a lead for the first time in the game but again their finishing deserted them when it mattered.

How many times has the fourth line been mentioned in this recap? Well, they were excellent all game and hemmed Cleveland in their zone for a solid 30-40 seconds with the game at 4-4. Sadly, neither Mastrosimone nor Solow could find the net, with Graves again making saves he knew little about.

Abruzzese produced a weak finishing attempt from the slot before Cleveland struck for a fifth time. It remained a tied game for a full three and a half minutes on this occasion before Cleveland’s fifth goal arrived.

After Dylan Gambrell rang the puck around the boards, the Monsters recovered the puck as a result of another terrible bounce. Cleveland moved the puck around a discombobulated group of Marlies before Owen Sillinger finished the play from close range.

The Marlies showed some of the resiliency visible in the weekend success against Charlotte by tying the game with four minutes remaining. A faceoff win by Logan Shaw was followed up by excellent work to keep possession in the zone by all five Toronto skaters. The result was Lajoie driving to the net from the left circle and measuring a low shot into the far corner of the net.

It took Cleveland just 78 seconds to respond, scoring a sixth goal that finally put the game to bed. A defensive breakdown allowed Sillinger to net his second of the game as a trailer on the play.

The Monsters made sure of the points with an empty netter to complete the touchdown.

Post Game Notes

– Special teams have been far better of late and were a positive again in this game. The power play scored once on four opportunities while the penalty kill was a perfect 3-3 and hasn’t allowed a goal against in three consecutive games.

– The Marlies record of 4-10-6 against North Division opponents continues to be a huge concern. Toronto has lost all five games against Cleveland this season, taking just two points in an overtime and shootout loss, respectively. 

– This loss marks the midway point of the 2023-24 campaign. Toronto is sixth in the North Division with a record of 16-4-6, three points outside of the playoff picture with two games in hand on Belleville.

Dennis Hildeby allowed six goals on 18 shots in a horrific-looking outing for him on a statistical front. He would likely want a couple of goals back, but this feels like a strange game in which to assess his performance. Despite the low shot total, he faced more grade-A scoring chances than you might expect in two games. If not for his work in the first period, the game would have been dead as a contest.

– It was another bright performance from Ryan Tverberg, who registered his first three-assist game. It might have been an even larger return with better finishing by his linemates. Tverberg is ranked second in points-per-game (1.10) among all AHL rookies to have played 20+ games. The last two Marlies rookies to come close: Connor Brown (0.80 in 76 games) and William Nylander (0.86 in 37 games).

“[Tverberg] is not afraid to go to the tough areas of the ice,” said Gruden. “He is winning battles along the walls against some big defensemen and is coming out with the puck. He is doing a great job and keeps getting better every game.”

Kyle Clifford’s return to the lineup resulted in Grant Cruikshank not dressing — a real shame for the rookie, who produced stellar performances against Charlotte over the weekend. Clifford found the net twice, although his line struggled defensively as Dylan Gambrell moved back to center.

– With a goal and an assist, Alex Steeves extended his point streak (4G/3A) to four games.

– Wednesday’s lines:

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

Lajoie – Miller
Kokkonen – Niemelä
Gaunce – Villeneuve


Game Highlights: Monsters 7 vs. Marlies 5