The special teams were huge for us.  A great job by the penalty killers and the goaltender to kill off [the 5-on-3 penalty kill late in the third period]. I didn’t particularly like the first call (on William Villeneuve for tripping), but again, at the end of the day, we did whatever we had to do.”

– John Gruden

Special teams were the difference in the Toronto Marlies‘ 3-2 win over Belleville as Toronto scored once with the man advantage and killed off five penalties.

The Marlies really should have had the two points in the bag through 40 minutes. Toronto outplayed and out-chanced Belleville but spurned a series of excellent scoring chances and gifted the Senators a pair of goals.

First Period

Toronto should have been up 2-0 inside four minutes. Kieffer Bellows produced an unconvincing finish on a breakaway, and Grant Cruikshank should have scored from the doorstep following a fantastic set-up by Max Lajoie.

The Marlies‘ breakouts were much improved in this game, and at the midway mark, tape-to-tape passes by Topi Niemelä and Logan Shaw created a breakaway for Nick Abruzzese, who made a nice move to slip the puck behind Kevin Mandolese.

Toronto’s opening power play of the game was ineffective in general, but they generated one grade-A chance on a broken play. Dylan Gambrell completely whiffed on the puck with the goal at his mercy as the veteran forward squandered yet another glorious scoring chance this season.

Mandolese was forced out of the game with six minutes remaining when his save on Max Ellis’ shot — or the attempt to clear the danger while the puck lay in his crease — led to an injury. Mark Sinclair entered the game in his place.

Toronto should have scored with their first shot on the backup netminder. Excellent work by Zach Solow created another grade-A chance, but it wasn’t capitalized on by Kyle Clifford.

Belleville fired a late warning shot across the bow, almost making the Marlies pay for a defensive breakdown. A tremendous last-ditch deflection by Cruikshank robbed Egor Sokolov with the net at his mercy. 

Second Period

Toronto got off to a bright start to the middle frame, but their momentum was cut short by an egregious penalty call. I will not mention the officiating again in this recap other than to say it was a shameful performance from the four-person crew.

The Marlies not only killed the penalty but should have scored while shorthanded. Shaw delivered a less-than-stellar finish on a breakaway, while Gambrell dithered on his partial breakaway. 

Belleville tied the game at the six-minute mark, benefitting from a let-off by Toronto in their transition defensee. Moments after almost doubling the lead, Shaw was stripped of possession in the Sens zone and Toronto’s backchecking effort was slack at best. Sokolov, who has an incredible scoring record against the Marlies, got himself on the score sheet to tie the game at 1-1.

Toronto killed off a second penalty and again generated a grade-A scoring chance. Shaw squandered another breakaway, his third of the game, as the Senators weren’t made to pay for sloppiness with the extra skater.

The go-ahead goal for the Senators was Dennis Hildeby’s fault. I won’t sugarcoat it; he needed to cling to a fairly routine shot by Zack Ostapchuk. However, in the build-up to the goal, Alex Steeves turned the puck over at the Toronto blue line as he attempted a clever pass instead of making the percentage play clearing the zone.

Belleville was in the ascendancy and almost made it 3-1 through Jacob Larsson if not for a good save by Hildeby.  It took Toronto a while to regain their composure after giving up two quick goals. The Marlies deservedly tied the game after Shaw was hooked in a 1-on-1 battle, drawing a penalty.

Clifford did what he does best by creating havoc in the crease, and with Sinclair down and out, a battle ensued for the loose puck. Roni Hirovonen applied the final touch to tie the game at 2-2. 

Third Period

The Marlies leaned on Hildeby early in the final frame. The goaltender stepped up to deny Oskar Pettersson on a breakaway and the subsequent penalty shot after the Sens forward was impeded.

The winning goal arrived at the three-minute mark in strange circumstances. Solow’s shot from the top of the right circle would have been easily dealt with if not for a deflection off the stick of Lassi Thomson. The puck ramped up and over the goaltender’s shoulder into the roof of the net.

Toronto took control of the game, limiting Belleville to just two more shots as the game entered the final five minutes. Two infractions later, though, the Marlies were staring down the barrel of a 5-on-3 for 99 seconds.

It was a committed effort by Toronto’s penalty killers, starting with Cameron Gaunce, Max Lajoie, and Joseph Blandisi. Sokolov registered the only two shots of the entire power play, and Hildeby gave up no juicy rebounds.

The Marlies saw out the remainder of regulation time to claim a much-needed regulation win against a division rival.

Post Game Notes

–  Nick Abruzzese hit the 10-goal mark in his 53rd game of the season, which is below last season’s goal pace. Opponents are still not respecting his shot as much as they should, making him an easier player to shut down. Abruzzese passed over three opportunities to shoot from below the dots in this game.

– This was a third consecutive multi-point haul for Kyle Clifford (2A). His role on the power play needs to be the net-front presence that brought the team success in this game. Anything else is a waste of everyone’s time. 

Dennis Hildeby admitted in the post-game interview his game has been up and down lately. He showed poise and a deal of character to shut the door the rest of the way in this game. Not all goaltenders are built the same, but there is little doubt a critical characteristic of the best netminders is the ability to remain calm and remain in the moment, which Hildeby showed in this game.

– Captain Logan Shaw hit a milestone with his 20th assist in the 50th game of his campaign (20g-20a-40pts). He was clearly frustrated with his finishing, but he was impactful throughout and played a key role during the late 5-on-3 PK.

Ryan Tverberg missed the game with an upper-body injury and is considered day-to-day.

– Wednesday’s lineup vs. Belleville:

Bellows – Shaw – Abruzzese
Clifford – Blandisi – Solow
Cruikshank – Gambrell – Steeves
Hirvonen – Slavin – Ellis

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai –  Villeneuve
Gaunce – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Hildeby & Gruden 

Game Highlights: Marlies 3 vs. Senators 2