“I love our start. We were rolling. We were disciplined. Once we took that 5-1 lead, even sometimes in the second period, I thought we got away from our game. At the end of the day, it’s all about the two points.”

– John Gruden

By no means was this a textbook performance, but with the Toronto Marlies still embroiled in a fight for a playoff spot, it is not a question of how but how many points.

First Period

I wasn’t as impressed by Toronto in the first period as their head coach, but they made fewer mistakes on both sides of the puck than Utica and showed resiliency to bounce back from an early goal against.

The Comets opened the scoring with 55 seconds played. Nick Abruzzese’s attempted breakout pass across the defensive zone was cut out, but enough Toronto defenders were on the scene to snuff out the danger. Matteo Pietroniro couldn’t find the loose puck and his partner Topi Niemelä could not react quickly enough to deny Kyle Criscuolo a tap-in. You could label the goal unlucky with some weird bounces and deflections, but there is also something to be said for making your own luck with solid, high-percentage plays on the breakout.

Toronto stuck back to tie the game at the four-minute mark. Logan Shaw led the way, creating a turnover in the neutral zone and a 3v2. Nick Abruzzese slipped the puck to Roni Hirvonen, who drove the middle lane before attempting to find Shaw to his left. The pass hit Justin Dowling’s skate, and Akira Schmid was left in no-man’s land as the puck found the net.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead inside seven minutes on a nice play off the rush. A breakout pass from William Villeneuve in the neutral zone sent Zach Solow down the wing on a 3v2 rush for Toronto. Solow’s nicely measured backhand area feed behind the defender was finished by the deft touch of Alex Steeves.

From this point forward, the physicality of the game ratcheted up. Not only have these teams seen a fair amount of each other, but the importance of the two points was tangible.

Pietroniro won a tilt against Chase Stillman, which was a good trade for the Marlies in terms of on-ice talent.

Dennis Hildeby stopped 10 of 11 shots in the opening frame, but none were better or more important than the triple save he pulled off with seven minutes remaining. The goaltender made a spectacular double stop to rob Max Willman from close range and then shut down Ryan Schmelzer following up on the play.

Schmidt robbed Shaw on a breakaway a minute later, but the reprieve was short-lived. Joseph Blandisi extended Toronto’s lead on the next shift. 

With Utica caught on a line change, Mikko Kokkonen entered the offensive zone on the right wing. His pass found Blandisi in some space in the middle of the zone, where the veteran forward used Tyler Wotherspoon as a screen and sniped home from the left circle.

Second Period

In my opinion, Toronto’s best segment of the game was in the first seven minutes of the middle frame. With sharp decision-making and puck management, they carried the play and sustained shifts inside the offensive zone.

Toronto increased their lead by striking on the power play as Hirvonen earned the man advantage and then scored the goal. The Finnish forward showed excellent puck poise by deceptively delaying his shot, side-stepping the defender’s stick and changing the angle on Schmidt before beating him with a far-post finish. 

For the remainder of the frame, it was almost exclusively the Hildeby show, as he turned aside 10 shots in the second half of the period. Wilman, Schmelzer, and Wotherspoon were all exasperated as Hildeby continued to stand on his head with another triple save. 

Steeves almost doubled his goal-tally after stickhandling his way through the Comets’ defense, but he hit the post. The winger ended up in the penalty box seconds later, but Kyle Clifford bailed him out with an excellent PK shift that drew a Utica penalty.

The result was Toronto netting a four-on-four goal with nine seconds remaining in the period. Abruzzese stripped an absent-minded Topias Vilen of possession below the goal line, and Shaw was the beneficiary of the feed from his linemate, making no mistake from the doorstep to give the Marlies a 5-1 lead.

Third Period

From Toronto’s perspective, the less said about the third period, the better. The Comets were allowed to build up steam and gain some confidence before Sunday’s rematch. If Utica managed to finish once or twice, the game might have become nervy for the complacent hosts.

The positives were Hildeby’s continued excellent play and the penalty kill, which went to work three times. Toronto’s Swedish netminder blanked six grade-A scoring chances and turned aside all 12 Utica shots in the final frame. 

Post Game Notes

– The Marlies have had quite a run of players making their professional debuts recently. Recently signed to an ELC, Jacob Quillan was the latest to join the list and produced a solid debut performance. On the fourth line alongside Josiah Slavin and Isaac Johnson, Quillan helped generate a pair of grade-A scoring chances in the first period. His minutes were limited in the final frame as special teams took over, but overall, this was a promising debut. 

“I thought [Quillan] did a really good job,” said Gruden. “You can see he comes from a winning culture — the college program at Quinnipiac is one of the best. He understands the little things and how to win. We will probably give him a look at center tomorrow, but he skates well. He thinks the game well. If we can stay out of the penalty box, hopefully, he can get some more five-on-five time.”

Dennis Hildeby registered his 20th win of the campaign with a fantastic 36-save performance. He has set a new franchise single-season record for wins by a rookie goaltender. Hildeby has won five of his last seven starts, posting a combined .927 SV%.

“[Hildeby] has been really good in the last few games for us,” said Gruden. “It has been a long year for him. He has played a lot of hockey with it being his first year. It is a lot to ask from a rookie netminder, but he has answered the bell and likes the moment. He was outstanding, which was huge.”

– It was a milestone game for Alex Steeves as he recorded his 150th AHL point with the eventual game-winning goal. He’s now tied for fifth with Alex Foster in all-time Marlies scoring. The winger has scored four goals in the last six games and is up to 24 for the season.

–  Kyle Clifford left the game favouring his left arm after a strong collision along the boards in the third period. This was his first game back after a previous injury, and he produced a solid performance up until that point. There was no update on his status post-game.

–  A top-six forward without a point in six straight games might have suffered a confidence crisis. Not Roni Hirvonen, who had been playing well without reward until this outing. It’s nice to see him finally appear on the scoresheet as he consistently makes high-percentage plays offensively and remains solid defensively. After his career was almost over before it started (eye injury), Hirvonen has 10 points (6G/4A) through 30 games.

“You could see it coming (from Hirvonen),” said Gruden. “I am just glad for his confidence that he was able to score really nice goals at crucial times in the game.”

–  Logan Shaw extended his goal streak to four games (4G/2A), while Nick Abruzzese has a four-game assist streak (5A).

“The one thing with [Abruzzese] is that regardless of whether he has a bad shift, he goes out and likes the puck on his stick,” said Gruden. “We’ve seen what he can do when he has it. He makes play and makes people around him better. Shawsy is benefiting from that, but he is also putting himself in those spots as well. It is nice to see they are clicking even without Bellows.”

– Saturday’s lineup vs. Utica:

Hirvonen – Shaw – Abruzzese
Steeves – Gambrell – Solow
Clifford – Blandisi – Mastrosimone
Quillan – Slavin – Johnson

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai – Villeneuve
Pietroniro – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Abruzzese, Hildeby & Gruden

Game Highlights: Marlies 5 vs. Comets 1