“It felt great. It’s been a couple of months, and I’ve been really itching to get back in a game.”

– Joseph Woll

“I guess all I needed was mom in the stands on this mentor trip for good luck.”

– Joseph Blandisi on scoring his first professional hat trick

“There are certain penalties that we took that I think were necessary. [Laval] were getting pretty tight to our goaltender, and I think they were targetting him a little bit. Our guys had each other’s backs.”

– John Gruden

The Toronto Marlies‘ willingness to dig in was the determining factor in a 4-1 victory that didn’t look possible in the middle frame. The performances of the two Josephs — Woll and Blandisi — will grab the headlines, but this was a committed team effort in difficult circumstances.

First Period

If Joseph Woll wanted an early touch of the puck, he received one, albeit in less-than-ideal circumstances. Laval created an odd-man rush inside 20 seconds and Woll did well to turn aside a shot from Mitchell Stephens.

The Marlies responded well to that early chance against, recording seven shots without reply before drawing a penalty at the midway mark of the frame.

Toronto’s power play always looks more threatening when they are willing to simplify and shoot with traffic rather than seek out the intricate passing play. From the point, William Villeneuve’s slap pass from the top of the left circle was redirected by Joseph Blandisi and past Rocket goaltender Jakub Dobeš. There was an element of puck luck — it went in off Blandisi’s skates — but it was the reward for going to the net and a simplified effort with the man advantage.

The Rocket attempted to respond immediately with just their second shot of the period, but Woll made a flying diving save to deny Xavier Simoneau and keep the lead intact.

It was a short-lived reprieve as the Rocket tied the game on their first power play with five minutes remaining when Toronto’s penalty kill allowed Simoneau to find Lias Andersson with a cross-crease feed. Woll denied the first effort — and Laval’s appeals for a goal were waived off — but Andersson jabbed at the loose puck, taking Woll with him into the net. There appeared to be a whistle on the play, and all hell broke loose as the goal was awarded.

Tommy Miller was attacked by Simoneau at the side of the net and missed the remainder of the game as a result. Kyle Clifford, who was attempting to pry the Laval player off of a prone and injured Miller, was handed a ridiculous roughing penalty.

It set the tone for the officiating crew, who were atrocious in this game. Toronto came out on the worse side of the decision-making despite their goaltender being victimized at every opportunity by Laval.

Second Period

Toronto began the middle frame on the penalty kill after Mikko Kokkonen was tabbed for a laughable roughing penalty late in the first period.

Woll made a fantastic double save to deny Simoneau despite getting crashed into and hacked at during scrambles in the crease. The lack of protection from the officials was making matters worse, and tempers became more and more frayed.

Toronto killed off a double-minor penalty to Kieffer Bellows, negating a chunk of the time on an interference call to Justin Barron. The Marlies were forced to hang tough and kill off multiple penalties, including small periods when they were down by two skaters. 

Such was the absurdity of the officiating, Cameron Gaunce found himself heading to the box for roughing after defending Woll. The Marlies netminder was elbowed in the head as the assault on the goaltender continued and the witless four-man crew allowed the Rocket to run riot.

The closest Laval came to scoring was an effort by Emil Heineman that struck the post, but otherwise, they were thwarted by the outstanding Woll. He turned aside six grade-A scoring chances and made 20 saves during a frantic second period.

Toronto was assessed a combined 14 penalty minutes and faced two 5-on-3 situations, but they came out on the right side thanks to a stellar penalty-killing effort — even more impressive when we consider that Gaunce and Clifford left the game in the second period. 

Thankfully, both returned to begin the final frame; otherwise, the Marlies would have been down three skaters due to the injury to Miller.

Third Period

Often this season, Toronto has crumbled in overly physical, tight games. That was not the case in this matchup as the Marlies came out with the type of fierce determination that they will need a lot more of to make the post-season.

Ryan Tverberg drew a penalty, sending Toronto on an early power play, where Logan Shaw swept home a rebound after Alex Steeves’ low shot was denied to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.

A penalty assessed to Josiah Slavin for holding left the power forward in disbelief, but the Marlies’ penalty kill stood up to the challenge once again.

Back at 5v5, Logan Maillioux striking the iron with a long-range effort was as close as Laval came to tying the game.

With seven minutes remaining, the Marlies added an insurance marker with their third power-play goal of the game. Afforded some space down low, Nick Abruzzese drove toward the net, creating a melee in the crease. The puck popped out kindly into some free ice, where Blandisi reacted the fastest to fire it up and over a stranded Dobeš.

Laval went for broke earlier than you may expect, pulling their netminder during 4-on-4 action. A blocked shot went high into the boards and bounced down before an out-numbered Blandisi won the battle for possession. He couldn’t resist shooting for the empty net from the defensive zone and successfully completed his hat trick.

The challenge for Toronto now is to complete a weekend sweep in Laval to create a five-point buffer in the standings.

Post Game Notes

– Special teams were the story of the game. Toronto’s penalty kill was breached just once on nine attempts and the power play went 3/5. 

Joseph Woll’s fitness was tested to the extreme in this game. Facing a physical team that took liberties with the netminder was a double-edged sword, and certainly, the narrative after the game would be different if an injury occurred. There were a couple of shaky moments in the first period, but otherwise, Woll was superb. More importantly, he was moving freely in the crease coming off of the high-ankle injury recovery.

“[Woll] looked very composed,” said Gruden. “He had to play in traffic. It is a good test for him as far as whether he is ready or not after being out for a while. The guys saw how hard he battles, and they have some history with him. They went that extra mile, too, to make sure he got his win.”

–  The sparkplug in the Marlies’ locker room, Joseph Blandisi, responded to a substandard previous game vs. Rochester with a performance full of effort and physicality. He was also a key part of the penalty kill. The hat trick was the icing on the cake, and, perfectly, he was able to share that moment with his mother in attendance. The first professional hat-trick of his career means Blandi has set single-season career highs in goals (17), assists (26), and points (43).

–  William Villeneuve hit the 20-point mark (2G/18A) with a pair of assists amid a controlled and confident performance — one of the defenseman’s best games of the season.

–  Captain Logan Shaw scored the game-winner, his 20th goal this season. He is just one shy of last year’s total accumulated in 69 games.

–   A special mention to Topi Niemelä, who produced a mature performance given the nature of the game. He remained calm under pressure — with and without the puck — despite more minutes with a shortened bench. I enjoyed the physicality he was able to dish out, including this booming hit:

– Friday’s lineup vs. Laval:

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

Gaunce – Niemelä
Kokkonen – Villeneuve
Anderson – Miller


Post-Game Media Availability: Woll, Blandisi & Gruden

Game Highlights: Marlies 4 vs. Rocket 1