“I liked our focus right from the get-go and how we kept pushing. I loved our response after [Laval’s] goal.”

– John Gruden

The Toronto Marlies produced as close to a 60-minute performance as they have all season against Laval on Sunday. It was excellent timing because this was a must-win game in the playoff picture.

The Marlies exposed their opponent’s defensive deficiencies early and killed the game with some clinical finishing.

First Period

After taking around five minutes to settle into the game, Toronto took control at 5v5 and never relinquished their stranglehold. That pressure resulted in a penalty and the opening goal inside seven minutes on the power play.

Toronto moved the puck at pace with purpose with the extra skater, stretching Laval’s penalty kill. Kieffer Bellows fired a shot in off the underside of the crossbar from low in the left circle to break the deadlock.

The Marlies doubled their lead 75 seconds later. Swarming around the Rocket net, Joseph Blandisi’s attempted cross-crease pass to Zach Solow in front was intercepted by Jakub Dobeš, but the goaltender inadvertently scored on himself.

The Marlies were attacking in waves, and on another day, they might have scored a touchdown in the first period alone with a little more puck luck. 

With six minutes remaining, Dennis Hildeby produced an excellent stop to deny Mitchell Stephens on a rare breakdown by the Marlies. That was Laval’s second shot of the game as Hildeby had barely seen the puck until that point.

After killing off a penalty, Toronto struck twice late in the frame to build a 4-0 lead.

After Topi Niemelä’s stretch pass to Josiah Slavin set in motion an odd-man rush, the towering forward pulled up slightly and sent a pass over to Hirvonen, who had a step on the Rocket defense and made no mistake with a redirect finish. 

Grant Cruikshank was the victim of a terrible hit on the numbers, although thankfully, he was able to skate away from it. Toronto made Laval pay within eight seconds on the power play as Nick Abruzzese netted his 13th of the campaign, banking a shot in off the goaltender from close range.

Second Period

Laval switched goaltenders to begin the middle frame as Kasimir Kaskisuo entered the game. At first, it didn’t seem to have the desired effect as the Marlies looked very comfortable in the first couple of minutes of the period.

Toronto then ran into some penalty trouble, and Laval scored on their second power play. Emil Heineman owns a heavy shot — i.e. not a player who should be afforded room on the power play — but the Marlies gave him a little space at the top of the right circle, where he sent a shot screaming past Hildeby.

There was no sniff of a comeback for the Rocket as the Marlies produced the perfect response. Toronto relentlessly attacked in waves and reestablished their four-goal lead two minutes later.

Alex Steeves drove wide and delivered an inch-perfect feed for Dylan Gambrell parked out front. I’ve been critical of Gambrell’s touch around goal this season, but this time, he stuck with it and scored on the second attempt. 

Third Period

After Hildeby robbed Brandon Gignac early in the final frame to deny Laval a second goal, Toronto found a sixth inside five minutes.

Solow won the battle for possession just inside the Rocket blue line, allowing Blandisi to walk into the slot and beat Kaskisuo clean with a perfectly placed shot.

If there was a negative from this game from the Toronto perspective, it’s that the Marlies ended it with a shortened bench. Clifford got involved with some extracurricular activities and earned himself a 10-minute penalty, while Bellows was the recipient of a hit that saw him scramble to the bench and remain stapled there as a precaution. Max Lajoie took a skate to the face (complete accident), resulting in a cut that required attention, and he did not return to the game.

The Marlies converted their touchdown late in the frame. A speculative point shot by Matteo Pietroniro was swatted into the net by Kaskisuo, who stared intently at this glove after the goal as if there was a hole in it.

Post Game Notes

–  Four points from this three-in-three weekend was the minimum requirement. Still getting it done after losing on Friday evening and playing a rested opponent on Sunday is a credit to the Marlies’ resolve.

–  Toronto has opened up a three-point gap over Laval in sixth place and played two fewer games. The Marlies are one point behind Rochester in third place, which should be their target over the 14 remaining games.

– The Marlies lead the season series 5-2 against Laval after winning three consecutive against the Rocket. The final meeting is next Sunday in Toronto.

–  Joseph Blandisi took his season goal tally to 23 in 57 games with a pair in this outing. He has enjoyed the season series against the Rocket, registering nine points and seven goals in seven games.

“The way [Blandisi] plays with that energy and instinctual play, he has the ability to finish in those moments,” said Gruden. “He has good touch whether it is in front of the net on the power play or on the flank shooting.”

–  Marshall Rifai and Mikko Kokkonen were the only Toronto skaters not to record a point as the Marlies spread the scoring around.

“We have six defensemen and four lines that can all play and make plays,” said Gruden. “We don’t have that so-called fourth line that just grinds it and works it down low. I think we have guys who can make plays on all four lines. It is a depth and it is definitely a strength of ours. It’s a tough matchup for the opposition.”

–  Kieffer Bellows netted his 26th goal of the season and added an assist for his 47th point. He’s now inside the top 20 AHL point producers and is ranked fourth in goals.

–  A 30-save performance by Dennis Hildeby marked his 16th victory (16-9-6). Most of his workload was in the first half of the second period when he almost singlehandedly killed one penalty. It was a feast or famine game for him in terms of action, and he acquitted himself very well in the circumstances.

– Sunday’s lineup vs. Laval:

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

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Pietroniro – Villeneuve
Rifai – Niemelä


Game Highlights: Marlies 7 vs. Rocket 1

Post-Game Media Availability: Pietroniro, Hirvonen & Gruden