“It seems like when we have to answer the bell, we answer the bell. Kudos to the guys for doing it. We’re going to need this focus as we move on because we still have eight more important games.”

– John Gruden 

The Toronto Marlies‘ final game against a non-divisional rival this regular season was a must-win. After throwing away four points in their previous three games, it was imperative to get back on track.

The Marlies blew a pair of leads against Springfield, but they stayed with the process and were worthy of the victory in an entertaining game thoroughly enjoyed by the school-day crowd at Coca-Cola Coliseum.

First Period

The Marlies could not have asked for a better start than a goal in the second minute while carrying the play.

Logan Shaw was tenacious in the left-faceoff dot, winning the battle for possession and flicking the puck back at a weird angle toward the middle of the ice. Mikko Kokkonen was alert to the situation and, despite being off-balance, rifled a shot past Vadim Zherenko’s blocker.

The ice was tilted in favour of the Marlies, but a second goal eluded them. Springfield then tied the game with their first shot of the game at 8:28.

The Marlies were masters of their downfall by failing to clear the defensive zone and turning the puck over to the Springfield top line. Ryan Suzuki netted his 13th of the campaign after set-up play by Hugh McGing and Adam Gaudette.

Toronto responded to falling behind with a sharp penalty kill during which Dennis Hildeby made a good save on Joseph Duszak. The Marlies were then handed a two-minute 5-on-3 powerplay and scored within eight seconds.

Alex Steeves found Nick Abruzzese down low, where the winger delivered the perfect feed to tee up Logan Shaw for a tap-in — a tic-tac-toe goal beautiful in its simplicity.

The second penalty was killed off, but Toronto continued to carry the play at 5v5. The Marlies produced three consecutive shifts where they hemmed Springfield in the defensive zone with relentless forechecking and puck retrieval. 

Zherenko would have been disappointed not to stop Steeves’ shot from a tight angle, but sometimes, the winger’s quickness of release catches goaltenders off guard. 

The Marlies 3-1 lead was almost cut in half from the restart of play when Toronto gave up a breakaway to Jakub Vranna, but Hildeby stepped up with a big save.

Second Period

The middle frame was a wild back-and-forth affair as Toronto coughed up their two-goal lead before finishing the period strongly.

Tagged for a tripping penalty, Marshall Rifai then decided to go after Will Bitten on the same play, handing Springfield a four-minute power play just 23 seconds in.

After killing off the first penalty, the PK’s resolve was broken in the second half of the double-minor. Another failed zone clearance cost them as Vrana finished from the slot on a nice feed by Mikhail Abramov.

The Marlies created several high-quality chances but buried none of them. After good work from his linemates, Isaac Johnson was turned aside, while Roni Hirvonen didn’t capitalize on two power-play chances from the slot. Kokkonen missed the target from the slot and then opted for a pass seconds later on an even better look.

The inevitable arrived as the Thunderbirds scored at the other end. Topi Niemelä was caught in possession and pickpocketed by Vrana, who scored on the resulting breakaway.

With 30 minutes remaining, the game was now tied at 3-3 and the Marlies needed to change the momentum.

90 seconds later, Max Lajoie made the percentage play by throwing the puck toward traffic in the crease. During the ensuing melee, Zherenko ended up flat on his back, unaware of where the puck was. Lajoie followed up the play and scooped the puck from between the goaltender’s body and arm before finishing into the empty net.

The tide had turned as Toronto once again carried the play, even when killing off another penalty. Niemelä and Mastrosimone missed quality scoring chances, but Toronto had set the table for the third period.

Third Period

The Marlies began the third period with gusto, setting out to secure the two points. A fifth goal arrived as early as 15 seconds in when Johnson’s shot from the hash marks squeaked past Zherenko — another goal the Springfield goaltender would want back.

Hirvonen ended the game without a point, but he created some promising moments offensively. He beat two opponents with some nifty stick-handling but lost the handle at the crucial moment as the puck slipped off the toe of his blade on his backhand with Zherenko beaten.

The three-goal cushion was established with five minutes on the clock when Toronto made the Thunderbirds pay for consecutive icings. After an offensive-zone faceoff was won back to the point, Niemelä teed up Rifai, who owns a shot he should use more regularly. Matthew Barbolini applied the first redirect and the puck found the net via Josiah Slavin, although I’m not sure how much the big centreman knew about it.

The Thunderbirds are ostensibly an offense-first team, so even a 6-3 lead wasn’t safe. Hildeby made two good saves on Mitchell Hoelscher and Hunter Skinner as both shots weaved through traffic in front.

The action continued apace as Toronto was suckered into exchanging chances with Springfield.

Vrana stepped out of the penalty box after a successful kill and straight onto a partial breakaway. After allowing three goals in 30 minutes, Hildeby was in no mood to give up a hat trick to Vrana.

Johnson had an opportunity to net a second but fired high on a breakaway before the expected carnage arrived.

Zach Solow and Duszak jousted after a collision, which was likely not accidental from both parties. The result was a scrum by the Springfield bench, during which the Thunderbirds coaching staff needed to intervene to prevent members of their team from getting involved off the bench. This was Duszak’s first visit to Toronto since his unceremonious departure, so it was no surprise that emotions boiled over. With Kyle Clifford out of the lineup, Solow stepped up, as did several other teammates.

The result of the chaos was a four-minute power play for Springfield, which became a 5-on-3 shortly afterward. The Marlies PK was seemingly inspired by the preceding events and denied Springfield with an aggressive and smart kill. Dylan Gambrell and Max Lajoie, in particular, were superb, and Hildeby was solid when called on.

Post Game Notes

–  With Rochester, Laval, and Utica surging, combined with Cleveland falling into a hole, the North Division remains incredibly tight. Toronto sits in fourth, four points clear of Utica in sixth but only seven points back of the top spot. If the Marlies were to win their game in hand, they would only be two points back of Rochester and Cleveland, who occupy second and third. Toronto will play Utica twice at home this weekend in what essentially will be a mini-playoff series.

–  14 Marlies skaters registered a point in a scoring-by-committee effort. 

  Matthew Barbolini recorded his first professional point, assisting on Josiah Slavin’s 10th goal of the campaign. He’s the 10th Toronto player to hit double figures in goals this season.

–  Logan Shaw scored for the third game running (3G/2A), a hot streak at the most opportune moment of the season for the captain. He won’t be looking at milestones, but 30 goals are within reach now.

–  It wasn’t his most impressive performance in his short stint with Toronto, but Tate Singleton found a way to extend his point streak to three games (1G/2A). Teammates and coaches love his work ethic, and Singleton is a relentless puck hound. 

–   It was a welcome return to the lineup for Robert Mastrosimone. Regular readers will know he’s quickly become one of my favourites, and even an extended injury absence didn’t knock him off his stride. He and Joseph Blandisi are stylistically similar but made for a good combination, so kudos to John Gruden for putting them together. The pair could easily have combined for two or three goals on a different day.

–  Isaac Johnson registered his first goal for the Marlies on a line with the aforementioned Blandisi and Mastrosimone. He has an innate ability to find space on the ice, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can consistently contribute offensively for the remainder of the season.

“[Barbolini and Johnson] are big, strong guys who are not afraid to get to the net,” said Gruden. “It is hard to fit in sometimes, but when you simplify things, play in straight lines, and go to the front of the net, you get rewarded. We need the depth, and we need big guys like that to show up in big moments.”

–  One goal on one shot for Alex Steeves (1G/1A) is a nice return percentage-wise but a worrying trend in terms of getting shots off. He’s recorded two or fewer shots in five of his last six games. It’s his biggest weapon, and he needs to utilize it more often.

–  This game marked a second consecutive multi-point effort for Mikko Kokkonen (1G/1A), who opened the scoring with his fifth goal of the season.

– Wednesday’s lineup vs. Springfield:

Hirvonen – Shaw – Abruzzese
Steeves – Gambrell – Solow
Mastrosimone – Blandisi – Johnson
Singleton  – Slavin – Barbolini

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Pietroniro – Villeneuve
Rifai – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Barbolini, Niemela & Gruden

Game Highlights: Marlies 6 vs. Thunderbirds 3