“We shot ourselves in the foot [with the second-period meltdown]. The mistakes, when we make them, seem to end up in the back of our net. It was a good character win at this time of the year. We’ll definitely take it.”

– John Gruden

The Marlies will be more pleased by the two points than their quality of performance in this game. Some of Toronto’ splay at five-on-five was excellent offensively, but the quantity of cheap goals against due to defensive breakdowns remains a real concern.

First Period

After a cagey start by both teams, Toronto struck first at the four-minute mark on their first shot of the game. Logan Shaw blasted home from the left circle after Kieffer Bellows and Nick Abruzzese combined to good effect.

Toronto killed off one penalty but gave up the tying goal during a delayed penalty call. Despite outnumbering Utica 4-3 in the defensive zone, the Marlies were pulled apart by a drop pass as Brian Halonen applied the finish on Justin Dowling’s cross-crease feed.

Toronto continued to scramble defensively, and Tyler Wotherspoon would have doubled the lead with nine minutes remaining if not for a sharp save by Dennis Hildeby.

The Marlies were wasteful with two consecutive power plays, allowing the Comets off the hook for some lazy play of their own.

Back at five-on-five, Toronto continued to show they were the stronger team when moving their feet and playing with pace. They found a go-ahead goal with 2:04 left on the clock.

Zach Solow led a 2v1 break and struck a shot off the post, but the frustration didn’t last more than a few seconds. Marshall Rifa picked up the loose puck and found Solow with an inch-perfect pass for a tap-in goal.

From the restart of play, Toronto created another 2v1. Grant Cruikshank and Alex exchanged passes when both would have been better off shooting, and Erik Källgren wasn’t forced to make a save.

Second Period

The Marlies dominated the opening seven minutes of the middle frame and should have built a substantial lead.

Blandisi fired a shot from the slot high over the net inside 60 seconds. Bellows, Clifford, and Shaw were all stopped from almost the same position as Toronto failed to capitalize on a string of quality scoring chances.

The period and the game at large pivoted on a power play for the Marlies. Toronto’s man-advantage unit was simply outworked as Ryan Schmelzer tied the game on a shorthanded breakaway, starting a wild eight-minute sequence in which the Marlies gave up four goals.

After Nolan Foote ripped a shot from the top of the right circle on the power play to hand Utica their first lead of the game, the Marlies appeared to blunt the Utica pushback with a quick response. Bellows’ rapid one-timer from the right dot took a deflection and found the net through traffic. But the Comets then control of the game with a pair of goals 14 seconds apart.

Graeme Clarke restored the lead and Foote netted his second of the game as the Comets took a 5-3 lead. The Marlies’ weak back pressure and shambolic defending left them staring down the barrel of another defeat to a North Division rival.

Third Period

Toronto began the third period on the power play and made it count inside 30 seconds. Ryan Tverberg’s snipe from the left circle sparked his team into life and a tying goal arrived at the three-minute mark following a penalty kill.

Josiah Slavin carried the puck clear of the defensive zone and beat one defender to create a 2v1. His offload to Shaw was perfectly weighted, and the Marlies captain scored with hard wrister into the top corner.

The Marlies were now in the ascendancy and appeared on track for a regulation win. They were generating the better scoring chances until another defensive breakdown led to a goal against.

A cheap turnover in the offensive zone shouldn’t have been costly as they outnumbered Utica 3-2 as the Comets transitioned forward. The rush defense was a mess, though, as a pass by Brian Halonen put Dowling in behind Villeneuve for the 6-5 goal.

The Marlies refused to go away, tying the game at 6-6 with a little over two minutes remaining in regulation. William Villeneuve’s excellent cross-seam pass was redirected by Nick Abruzzese to earn Toronto at least a point.


The Marlies were even more dominant in the extra frame, although another mistake almost cost them the extra point. Hildeby rescued Shaw after a bad turnover gifted a breakaway to Kyle Criscuolo. After chances for Bellows, Abruzzese, Max Lajoie, and Topi Niemelä went begging, a skills competition was needed to decide the extra point.

Alex Steeves scored the only goal and Hildeby shut the door on three Utica shooters to earn the Marlies a vital two points.

Post Game Notes

–  The Marlies improved to 3-0-1 against Utica this season, moving up to fourth in the standings.

–  Logan Shaw scored twice to take his season tally to 22, besting last year’s total. The captain produces his best performance when he’s played with a shoot-first mentality, something he’s done in the last few games. A three-point haul (2G/1A) extended his point streak to three games (2G/4A).

“In the last two games, [Shaw] has been exceptional,” said Gruden. “He is doing everything. He is killing penalties and playing well on the power play… It’s a good time for him to be feeling it. It’s important.”

–  Another player refinding his groove offensively is Kieffer Bellows. A three-point haul (1G/2A) could easily have been more as Bellows dominated his minutes on a line with Shaw and Nick Abruzzese (1G/1A).

–  As per Todd Crocker, even though Dmitri Ovchinnikov has been traded to Minnesota, he will stay with the Marlies for the remainder of the season. He’s been a healthy scratch even when Toronto has been short of bodies, so it’s a curious decision all around.

– Friday’s lines vs. Utica:

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

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai –  Villeneuve
Gaunce – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Bellows, Tverberg & Gruden