“I’m glad we were able to come away with a victory in the third period.”
– John Gruden
There was probably a combination of pride and relief in the above post-game comment by the Toronto Marlies head coach. He watched his team threaten to throw away more points in the final frame, but this time, Toronto responded to a goal against positively and earned a valuable two points on the back of a superb 31-save performance by Dennis Hildeby.
It didn’t hurt the Marlies head coach’s post-game mood that his team won and the only goal against was scored by his son, Jonathan Gruden of the WBS Penguins.
The opening frame was played at a frantic pace in transition, but neither team could sustain time in the offensive zone.
The Marlies held a 9-0 shot advantage through 14 minutes, although few were legitimate scoring chances. Kieffer Bellows was denied from the left circle as Toronto’s two high-quality scoring opportunities arrived on the game’s first power play.
Logan Shaw forced a good pad stop out of Joel Blomqvist, and Joseph Blandisi missed the target from the slot.
Dennis Hildeby faced only four shots, although he was firmly tested by Gruden inside the last minute.
With the words of their head coach ringing in their ears, the Penguins came out with some fire in their bellies to begin the middle frame.
A turnover by Tommy Miller gave WBS the opportunity to make the perfect start at the two-minute mark. Hildeby produced a stunning double save as he denied grade-A scoring chances for Valtteri Puustinen and Radim Zohorna.
Those missed chances proved extra painful for the Pens when the Marlies broke the deadlock shortly afterward.
The fourth line — which has stepped up to the plate during this road trip — combined to score the critical first goal of the game. After some good work down low to recover possession, the defense pairing of Marshall Rifai and Topi Niemelä moved the puck across the point to Robert Mastrosimone, who loves to get the puck on net. His shot deflected off Zach Solow out front, allowing Josiah Slavin to finish it off from close range before Blomqvist could react.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton were guilty of failing to take advantage of some generous defending by Toronto in the middle frame. Logan Shaw inexplicably sent a pass out in front of the Marlies net, but Vinnie Hinostroza couldn’t beat Hildeby with an effort from the hash marks.
Toronto then found themselves on the penalty kill, facing a 5-on-3 for 43 seconds. Blandisi was the hero, almost singlehandedly running down the clock by winning puck battles in outnumbered situations.
The remainder of the frame turned into a special-teams battle with some highly unusual and at times baffling calls by the officiating crew. Ryan Tverbeg ended up in the box for goaltender interference after he was launched into Blomqvist by Austin Rueschhoff.
Toronto staved off a third Pens power play late in the period, with Hildeby making another excellent double stop, this time on Ty Smith and Zohorna.
Although the Penguins again started the period with plenty of purpose, Toronto made life more problematic for themselves than it needed to be. A series of icings and turnovers allowed the Pens to build up a head of steam as they pushed for a tying marker.
Toronto ended up conceding after they lost a series of battles following a dump-and-chase play into the corner. Marc Johnstone was robbed from the slot by Hildeby, but Gruden was able to scoop home the rebound at full stretch beyond Toronto’s netminder.
The Marlies’ response to the mostly self-induced adversity was immediate and effective. After Robert Mastrosimone was denied on a partial breakaway, Toronto produced a passing clinic to unlock the Penguins’ defense within 18 seconds of giving up the lead. A beautiful give-and-go between Shaw and Nick Abruzzese carved the Pens open before the latter scored his first goal since January 6.
Toronto played a perfect game with the lead and snuffed out WBS offensively.
After Dylan Gambrell should have made the result safe inside the final five minutes with a great chance on the doorstep, the Marlies nearly regretted his miss a couple of minutes later. Gruden was shut down in the slot by Hildeby on the lone grade-A chance WBS created following their earlier goal.
Within 30 seconds remaining, Toronto scored an insurance marker as the Penguins pulled their goaltender. Shaw chased down Blandisi’s long-range empty net effort to net Toronto’s third goal.
Solow tacked on another empty-net goal to give the scoreline a more flattering look, but the only thing that mattered was that Toronto secured a crucial two points.
Post Game Notes
– A 2-0-1 record against Atlantic Division teams is better than might have been expected after this swing through. Picking up three points against teams ranked first and eighth in the AHL is no mean feat.
– The Marlies are now 4-2-1 through the Boat Show road trip, a run of form that has hoisted them into fourth place in the North Division. With three points separating third and seventh place in the division, each game against teams from the North takes on more significance. The Marlies will finish their travels in Utica with a pair of games against the Comets.
– This victory owed a lot to Dennis Hildeby, who came up with some big saves in the second period when Toronto let off defensively. He turned aside 15 shots in the middle frame and 31 overall.
– Zach Solow recorded his second multi-point haul of the season. He’s been a livewire on a fourth line that’s begun to establish its identity. 11 points (5G/6A) in 34 games is a decent return from a player who has to earn his crust in the bottom six/fourth line.
– Roni Hirvonen registered his second assist in as many games since his return from a three-month injury layoff.
– Kyle Clifford missed the game with a lower-body injury. His status is listed as day-to-day.
– Wednesday’s lines vs. WBS:
Hirvonen – Shaw – Abruzzese
Steeves – Gambrell – Ellis
Bellows – Tverberg – Blandisi
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow
Lajoie – Miller
Rifai – Niemelä
Gaunce – Kokkonen