“We knew they were going to push hard as they didn’t play last night and we did. We just kept our composure.”

John Gruden

At the right time of the schedule, the Toronto Marlies are finding ways to win games where they might have lost or dropped points earlier this season. Initially stifled by a Hartford team looking to snap its losing streak, the Marlies stayed with the process and capitalized on some good fortune to break the game wide open in this 5-1 win on Saturday.

First Period

In a fast-paced first period, Toronto struggled to get going offensively. Hartford’s forecheck smothered the Marlies, who rarely cleared the red line before they were forced back on their heels.

Former Marlie Mac Hollowell rang a shot off the crossbar on one of many shifts where the Wolf Pack had Toronto scrambling in the defensive zone.

The Marlies began to claw their way into the game and had a goal rightly waved off due to a high stick by Dylan Gambrell. Toronto then drew the first penalty of the game, but the power play wasn’t sharp early.

The Marlies then committed the cardinal sin of switching off late in the period, conceding a goal with just 16 seconds remaining. A shot from Hollowell at the right half-wall created a rebound that a wide-open Nic Petan buried from close range.

Second Period

Toronto’s bench was shortened in the second period with the absence of veteran forward Kyle Clifford due to a lower-body injury, which John Gruden described as a precautionary measure.

The Marlies got off to a strong start to the middle frame anyway, generating two grade-A scoring chances inside two minutes. Neither Tate Singleton nor Gambrell could capitalize on those opportunities, but Toronto’s control over the play led to two consecutive penalties drawn.

The power play reverted to early season form — generating no quality scoring chances — and even a short spell of 5-on-3 was wasted as Toronto lost a battle for possession despite the extra skaters.

The Marlies dodged a bullet at the midway point in what was probably a turning point in hindsight. A point shot from a faceoff win struck Luke Cavallin’s left post and stayed on the right side of his goal line.

The Marlies required a spark to get them back on track, and one arrived from a somewhat unlikely source. A relentless puck hound, Josiah Slavin’s work ethic and good stick allowed him to pick off a pass in the Hartford zone. It wasn’t clear if he was attempting a pass or a shot, but Wolf Pack goaltender Dylan Garan was similarly confused as the puck took a couple of turns and a weird deflection before finding the net.

The switch had been flicked, and Toronto held the lead just 65 seconds later.

There didn’t appear to be much danger when Singleton took a pass at the far left boards by the blue line with Hartford outnumbering the Marlies, but the rookie dished a perfectly weighted pass to Topi Niemelä, who was joining the rush and driving through the middle of the zone. The defenseman didn’t break stride as he beat Garand clean with a top-shelf finish.

A penalty by Gambrell gave Hartford the opportunity to strike back immediately, but the Marlies’ PK stood firm, with Marshall Rifai, in particular, shining as he cut out a dangerous pass and cleared the danger.

The Marlies created a chance to double their lead in the dying seconds of the frame when Nick Abruzzese escaped on a partial breakaway, but his five-hole effort was turned aside.

Third Period

Toronto came out with a push in the final frame, searching for an insurance marker to deflate Hartford.

On an almost identical play to the second goal, Singleton teed up Blandisi, but Garand denied the latter with an excellent pad save.

Toronto’s 3-1 tally was a dagger, not only because it padded the lead but because of the bizarre nature of the goal. Niemelä’s stretch pass was tipped by Gambrell in the neutral zone, sending the puck high into the air toward the Wolf Pack net. The puck landed just in front of Garand and took a wicked bounce over his left pad.

Brett Berard was denied from close range as Cavallin made an important stop to prevent Hartford from striking back with plenty of time left in the game.

The Marlies made sure of the two points with two more goals. Abruzzese scored from a tight angle on the power play with a pin-point top-shelf shot, and Alex Steeves made Hartford pay for consecutive icings with a goal directly off of an offensive-zone faceoff win.

Cavallin produced three quality saves on the penalty kill to ensure no further damage to his stat line and secure a 5-1 victory for the Marlies.

Post Game Notes

–  The Marlies extended their winning streak to four games, just one shy of their longest winning streak this season. The most notable aspect of these victories is that they have allowed just seven goals after conceding 25 goals in their previous six games in March.

–  The Marlies now sit third in the North Division by virtue of one fewer game played than Rochester. The game in hand takes place Sunday afternoon against Laval. It’s going to be a tense race to the end of the season, with three points separating third and sixth place and Utica another three points back in seventh.

–  Tate Singleton registered his second primary assist in as many games. He’s making a strong case to stick around.

“[Singleton] is doing incredibly well — him, along with [Cruikshank] are doing great,” said Gruden. “They are bringing energy and some new life to the group. We are putting them in an opportunity to succeed, and they are running with it.”

–  It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Luke Cavallin in the AHL this season. Toronto has performed abysmally in front of him in some of his starts, and he’s gone long stretches without any game action. This was his third start of the month and first in a week, but he looked dialed in. It’s an adjustment going from the number-one role in the ECHL to second fiddle behind Dennis Hildeby as the Marlies push for a playoff berth. Without making any highlight-reel saves, Cavallin’s solid performance gave Toronto a chance to win before they took the game over.

–  With three points (3A) in the last 13 games, the offense had dried up for Topi Niemelä after a strong first half of the season. Admittedly, his assist on Gambrell’s goal was fortunate, but the nature of his seventh goal of the season was not. With Toronto struggling to provide much offense from the blue line of late, it’s a good time for the Finnish defenseman to step up.

–  Maybe it’s luck evening out with Dylan Gambrell‘s recent four-game heater (4G/2A). It’s certainly timely with the absence of Kieffer Bellows for an extended period.

–  The Toronto Marlies announced the signing of centerman Matthew Barbolini to a two-year AHL deal beginning next season. The 23-year-old will join the team on a PTO for the remainder of this season, and it’ll be fascinating to watch how he’s utilized. A graduate of Miami University, Barbolini has hit double figures in goals and has been around a .75 points per game in each of his last three college seasons. He’s listed at 6’2” and 205 lbs, which may help him cope with the immediate rigors of the transition to pro at the late stage of the season.

–  Saturday’s lineup vs. Hartford:

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

Lajoie – Gaunce
Rifai – Kokkonen
Pietroniro – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Cavallin, Singleton & Gruden

Game Highlights: Marlies 5 vs. Wolf Pack 1