“I thought, for the most part, we were playing a flawless game until the miscue on their first goal, and that gave them a little bit of life… It was a disappointing ending, but I give our guys a lot of credit. Losing a guy like Gambrell, we had to fill that hole, and they did a really good job of that.”

– John Gruden

As much as this was another frustrating defeat to a North Division rival, the Toronto Marlies‘ performance had some positive aspects.  The biggest bright spot was a strong first-period performance in which the Marlies built a healthy lead that could have been a larger advantage.

As for the caveats, Toronto was done no favors by an officiating crew that appeared way out of its depth. A terrible call resulted in Belleville’s tying power-play goal, and Dylan Gambrell was injured by a hit that went unpunished.

First Period

It took the Marlies a few minutes to find their way into the game, but once they did, Toronto carried the play and generated the better scoring chances.

Topi Niemelä activated into the play with Logan Shaw and Nick Abruzzese, who drove through the neutral zone with speed. The defenseman drew a good blocker save from Leevi Merilainen in an early warning shot across the bow. 

30 seconds later, Zach Solow and Josiah Slavuin combined to good effect, but the latter missed the target from close range, much to his frustration.

Toronto opened the scoring inside six minutes after another overpowering shift. Niemelä was at the forefront, creating the zone entry before dishing the puck off and heading to the net. Solow, Slavin, and Robert Mastrosimone combined with a tic-tac-toe series of passes before teeing up Niemelä in the slot. The defenseman was denied initially but not on the second attempt as he scored on his own rebound.

Toronto didn’t capitalize on their first power play opportunity but continued to roll at 5v5. Matthew Barbolini made a nice move around one opponent before firing a shot that Jacob Quillan tipped out front. The rookie was millimeters away from recording a first career point and goal as his effort slipped past the post with Merilainen beaten.

The Marlies found themselves down to 11 forwards inside the final five minutes of the opening period. Tyler Klevin’s hit on Dylan Gambrell appeared reckless and high in real-time. The replay showed Kleven clearly leaving his feet as he careened into the Marlies forward. It was clearly deserving of at least a charging infraction, but Toronto ended up on the penalty kill as Joseph Blandisi went after Klevin following the hit.

Denis Hildeby was the Marlies’ best penalty killer with a fantastic double save to turn aside Wyatt Bongiovanni and Rourke Chartier.

Toronto settled for a 1-0 lead at the first beak as neither Solow nor Abruzzese could capitalize on Grade-A scoring chances from the slot on a late power play.

Second Period

The Marlies doubled their lead inside three minutes of the middle frame. From a defensive zone faceoff, Ron Hirvonen won a battle and chipped the puck down the left boards for Abruzzese to chase. The winger collected possession with a burst of speed, sauntered around Klevin, and delivered a nice low finish to beat Merilainen on his blocker side.

Toronto was in complete control of the game and should have struck for a third time with nine minutes remaining. Shaw seized on a misplay by Klevin behind the Senators’ net and sent the puck out front to a wide-open Abruzzese, but he buried his shot into the chest of the Senators netminder.

That turned out to be a turning point as Belleville scored 80 seconds later. 

Hildeby was guilty of a hesitant misplay from behind his net, presenting possession to Stephen Halliday, who set up Josh Currie to score into the empty cage. 

Belleville was the beneficiary of more questionable officiating shortly afterward. After they were awarded a power play on a dubious high-sticking call, an obvious high-stick on Mastrosimone seconds into the man advantage was not called. Only a point-blank save by Hildeby to rob Currie spared the officials from the wrath of the home crowd.

Back at 5v5, Toronto once again carried the play but didn’t re-establish a two-goal lead. Slavin and Quillan had the best of those opportunities, but neither could find a way past Merilainen.

Third Period

After just one shot through the opening seven minutes of the third period, the game changed after another dreadful call.

Hirvonen was tripped by Dillon Heatherington, and as he fell forward, the Marlies winger accidentally tripped Halliday. The bizarre result was a power play for Belleville. Hildeby pulled off four successive excellent stops before Wyatt Bongiovanni smashed home a tying goal for Ottawa’s affiliate.

The ice was tilted for the remainder of regulation as Belleville dominated possession and zone time. The Marlies were limited to four shots, none of which came from dangerous areas. 

Hildeby earned Toronto a point with some stellar saves, turning aside three Grade-A scoring chances inside the final four minutes to force overtime.


Toronto’s overtime performance was a mess. Hildeby made an excellent save 19 seconds in to rob Jacob Larsson, but the effort was in vain.

The Senators made Toronto pay for their botched 2-on-1, taking advantage of tired legs as Bongiovanni netted his second of the game to secure a crucial victory for Belleville.

Post Game Notes

– A regulation win for Toronto would have all but secured their place in the playoffs. However, as Laval suffered a regulation loss on Thursday, the Marlies’ magic number to make the post-season is six as they prepare to face Syracuse on the road twice this weekend. Toronto has yet to record a victory against the Crunch this season.

Topi Niemelä scored his eighth goal of the season in what’s been a hot stretch for him offensively. The defenceman has eight points (2G/6A) in as many games, which is not surprising when he activates offensively so effectively.

“You have to have your defense involved, but it has to be smart,” said Gruden. “It is understanding when there is a play to be made and when it is time to get back and play your position. He is growing in that regard. It is good to see. He played well.”

– Wednesday’s lines vs. Belleville:

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

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai – Gaunce
Pietroniro – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: John Gruden