“Our start, our ability to bend but not break, our goaltending was outstanding, and we scored timely goals.”
– John Gruden on the keys to a 4-0 victory over Utica
Secondary scoring was the theme of this 4-0 victory for the Toronto Marlies as the fourth line established a healthy lead that would put the Utica Comets on the backfoot inside 13 minutes.
A 25-save shutout for Dennis Hildeby doesn’t sound like a stressful evening necessarily, but the goaltender needed to work hard early in this game to keep Utica at bay, beginning at the four-minute mark.
With three Toronto skaters caught down low puck-watching, Samuel Laberge was left on his own in the slot. Hildeby robbed the Comets forward and performed the same trick shortly afterward. A giveaway by Toronto in the defensive zone resulted in a grade-A chance for Arnaud Durandeau, but the Swedish netminder was sharp early.
John Gruden sent out the fourth line after those two big Hildeby saves, and the trio responded positively with a strong forechecking shift, spending a considerable amount of time in the Utica zone. It foreshadowed the opening goal just before the midway point.
As the Marlies transitioned with speed through the neutral zone, Topi Niemelä was the architect of the 1-0 goal. He easily could have shot in the high slot but instead dished to his right, where Zach Solow it rifled home.
Toronto scored a second a little over three minutes later to deliver a gut punch to the Comets.
The fourth line ran Utica ragged with their grinding effort combined with moving the puck with pace and purpose. The end result was Robert Mastrosimone tipping a Max Lajoie point shot past Schmid. It was a relief for Lajoie, who felt he could have done better with an excellent scoring chance following the first goal.
Back in the lineup after missing a game due to injury, Kyle Clifford took a holding penalty after the restart of play. Much to the disdain of the home fans, Toronto toyed with Utica’s power play and could have scored a shorthanded goal. Schmid made a glove save to rob Dylan Gambrell as the Marlies killed the penalty with ease.
Toronto took their foot off the gas in the final three minutes when choppy breakouts allowed Utica the chance to build some momentum offensively. The Marlies held firm, although Alex Steeves took a penalty in the final seconds to leave them shorthanded.
Toronto killed off their second penalty of the game, but they were a little guilty of easing off the intensity that earned them success at five-on-five in the first period.
The timely scoring Gruden alluded to after the game arrived at the eight-minute mark, though. After surviving another extended shift in the defensive zone, the Marlies broke the other way with Gambrell leading a 2v2, in part due to a botched line change by the Comets. Steeves scored on the rebound following Gambrell’s initial effort.
Toronto should have tacked on at least one more goal in various man-advantage situations, including 43 seconds of a 5-on-3. The power play wasn’t at its sharpest in this game, but it mattered little in the grand scheme of the outcome.
Hildeby faced just four shots through the second period, although his best save came on a grade-A chance for Utica just after Toronto’s third goal. Ryan Schmelzer was left frustrated as the Marlies maintained a healthy 3-0 lead through 40 minutes.
The game may have taken on a different complexion if Utica scored with 3:30 played in the final frame. A shot by Joe Gambardella snuck through traffic, striking the bottom of the far post at a gentle speed, but it stayed out and Toronto cleared the danger.
A frustrated Comets team took two infractions inside the next six minutes, nullifying any thoughts of an unlikely comeback.
Ryan Tverberg had a quiet game by his standards but sniped on the power play to put Toronto ahead 4-0.
Hildeby needed to work in the final minutes to secure his shutout. He denied Ryan Fitzgerald on a 2v1 before turning away Schmelzer for the third time in the game to put an exclamation mark on his clean sheet and the victory for Toronto.
Post Game Notes
– Toronto’s four-game point streak (3-0-1) has seen them rise to third in the North Division, but it’s a really tight standings picture as they’re just four points clear of Utica in seventh.
– Defenseman Topi Niemelä recorded a pair of assists for his first multi-point game since December 20, which is also the date of his last goal. Max Lajoie added a primary assist on the 1-0 goal by Solow.
“I thought our defensemen [were excellent],” said Gruden. “Their gaps get better when the forwards are working back, but our D are playing extremely well. They are not making those catastrophic mistakes. They are keeping the play in front of them, and they are simplifying things.
“When you simplify things, especially against high-quality players, they get frustrated, and then offensively, you can take advantage of it. The timing of how our defensemen are playing has been really good in this stretch.”
– Ryan Tverberg hasn’t gone more than a game without scoring a point this season. His eighth goal of the campaign kept that record intact. Tverberg was the AHL’s rookie of the month for January after recording 15 points (5G/10) in 11 games. He’s the first Toronto player to win the award since Connor Brown (December 2014).
“[Tverberg] has earned the spot he is in,” said Gruden. “He can make plays. He is not afraid to go to areas that are tough to get to. He has taken advantage of it.”
– Alex Steeves recorded a multi-point haul (1G/1A) after three games off the scoresheet.
– Consecutive multi-point games (1G/1A) for Zach Solow included a first game-winning goal in the AHL in this victory in Utica. Linemate Robert Mastrosimone scored his second goal (third point) in four games as he continues to provide a spark on the fourth line.
– This was the fourth shutout of the campaign for Dennis Hildeby, three of which came on the road. He has now strung together two strong starts following a spell of mixed form. Four clean sheets leave him tied for second among AHL goalies in the category this season.
– Friday’s lines vs. Utica:
Hirvonen – Shaw – Abruzzese
Clifford – Gambrell – Steeves
Bellows – Tverberg – Blandisi
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow
Lajoie – Miller
Rifai – Niemelä
Gaunce – Kokkonen