“I thought we played pretty well. On special teams, they had the advantage over us, but every time they tied it, we responded. Maybe the one thing we have to understand [better] is the retaliatory penalties. We’re going to have to walk away from that stuff if we are going to be good in the playoffs.”

– John Gruden

“I’ve said it before. We’ve got a lot of guys on our team who are having fantastic individual seasons. If we can all be doing it at the same time down the stretch here as we get healthier, I think that can be a very exciting thing.”

– Alex Steeves

After a defensive battle between the Marlies and Crunch on Friday evening, Saturday’s rematch was a wild 6-5 affair in which Toronto gave up a pair of multi-goal leads. The only thing that mattered was the Marlies earning the two points to punch their playoff ticket.

First Period

The Marlies could not have dreamt of a better start. They scored twice inside three and a half minutes—Alex Steeves and Logan Shaw scored similar partial-breakaway goals featuring nice finishes into the far side of the net, propelling Toronto to a two-goal lead.

A shellshocked Syracuse might have been reeling, but they were handed a lifeline at the five-minute mark. After the Marlies gave up a 2v1 with numbers caught up ice, the Crunch played it perfectly, and Marshall Rifai did not. Alex Barré-Boulet set up Ilya Usau to score his seventh of the season on the home team’s first shot of the game. It was a rough introduction for Matt Murray, who could have used more support in his first action of the season.

Robert Mastrosimone and Nick Abruzzese had good looks to re-establish the two-goal advantage before Syracuse struck again. Max Crozier’s shot was tipped in front by Waltteri Merelä in the slot, beating Murray on his blocker side.

Toronto responded in the final two minutes to take a lead into the first intermission. They were rewarded after a strong cycle in the offensive zone in which they kept the puck alive. Rifai’s point shot produced a rebound that Cameron Gaunce, of all people, stabbed home from the slot.

The final regular-season meeting between the teams was overly physical and threatened to get out of control on more than one occasion. Even Topi Niemelä became sick of Syracuse’s antics as he was goaded into dropping the gloves with Gage Goncalves. The young defenseman handled his first professional fight fairly well given his lack of experience, getting in a couple of shots. 

Second Period

The officials didn’t cover themselves in glory in this game, making several obvious errors. Jack Finley was clearly offside as he sprung on a partial breakaway, but he was denied by Murray. An infraction was called on the play, but thankfully, Toronto negated the penalty. 

A booming open-ice hit—clean and fair—by Matteo Pietronito drew the ire of the home team. The defenseman was forced to drop the gloves with Tristan Allard, a tilt that Pietronito won. The Syracuse player escaped without an instigator penalty in another baffling decision by the officials.

There could be no argument about the hit that allowed Syracuse to tie the game at 3-3. It was a needless and reckless boarding infraction by Steeves, probably one borne out of the emotions of the game. Afforded too much room in the left circle, Goncalves roofed a shot by the unsighted Murray.

Once more the Marlies responded positively to a goal against. On an odd broken play, Abruzzse beat Devante Stephens to a loose puck and scored on the second attempt during a partial breakaway.

Toronto then surged out to a two-goal lead for the second time. On a 3v3 rush, Joseph Blandisi teed up Steeves, who delivered a fantastic backhand finish while he was hooked. That signaled the end of the game for Hugo Alnefelt, who was replaced by Brandon Halverson between the pipes.

Syracuse cut the lead 60 seconds later with another controversial goal. Sean Day was injured behind the play, seemingly due to a stick to the mouth which drew blood. No official raised their arm during the action, so I can only surmise that they guessed about the call and randomly selected a Toronto player to sit down for four minutes.

Max Crozier scored with a blast through a screen to draw Syracuse within one.

Steeves came within a whisker of scoring a hat trick inside 40 minutes, but he struck the iron on a late power play. Toronto settled for a 5-4 lead through two periods, but the overwhelming feeling was that more goals were coming.

Third Period

In a disappointing start to the final frame for the Marlies, Syracuse tied the game within five minutes after Toronto’s inability to break the cycle preceded Quinn Schmiemann’s goal from the top of the left circle.

The Marlies generated chances to win the game in regulation, but they could not find a way to score a decisive sixth goal. Josh Slavin ripped a shot off the crossbar, Roni Hirvonen was turned aside on a partial breakaway, and Niemelä forced a double save out of Halverson.

An excellent defensive effort in the final frame secured at least a point as the teams headed to overtime for the second consecutive night.


The extra frame was a bore-fest, with neither team taking any risks. An excellent diving defensive play by Mikko Kokkonen broke up a 2v1 for Syracuse on what was the best scoring chance for either team.

Mattu Murray was perfect 3-3 in the shootout, and Shaw was the only shooter to convert as Toronto earned the extra point which guaranteed a playoff berth.

Post Game Notes

–  With a playoff spot assured, it’s now about whether the Marlies can finish high enough in the standings to avoid the fourth vs. fifth play-in round. Toronto is two points back of Cleveland (third), whom they will play twice next weekend. The Marlies’ next game is against Rochester (second), with three points the difference between them.

–  Logan Shaw became just the fifth player in franchise history to score 30 goals in a single season for Toronto (Chris Mueller in 2018-19, Ryan Hamilton in 2012-13, Johnny Pohl and Brad Leeb in 2005-06). With six goals in his last eight games, Toronto’s captain has stepped up to the plate late in the season.

“He is our leader,” said Gruden. “He did a really good job of keeping his composure because he played a lot with all of the special teams, being down some players, and getting some guys on that weren’t familiar in certain situations. It is outstanding. He can defend. He can score. He is extremely important on our hockey club.”

–  Joseph Blandisi has struggled to hit the twine down the stretch (two goals in 11), but with three assists in this game, he remains Toronto’s leading scorer with 59 points (25G/34A).

–  Cameron Gaunce‘s (1G/1A) first goal for Toronto was a nice moment. The Marlies could use more offense from their blue line as the games become tighter.

–  Alex Steeves scored twice for the fifth time this season. With three games remaining in the schedule, he’s at 26 goals, and hitting the 30 mark isn’t impossible.

–  On paper, this appeared to be a rough first outing for Matt Murray. Breaking down the goals, he had no chance on a well-worked 2v1 first goal. He was dealing with a healthy amount of traffic and some well-placed shots among the other goals against. I am sure he would’ve liked to come up with another save or two along the way, but he also stayed in the fight and made some timely stops, as John Gruden alluded to after the game. I’m not certain there is any sense in overanalyzing a goaltender’s performance in his first game in 377 days.

–  Toronto’s injury crisis continues. Jacob Quillan was absent with an upper-body issue. On the plus side, he is considered day-to-day.

– Saturday’s lineup in Syracuse:

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

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai – Gaunce
Pietroniro – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Blandisi, Steeves & Gruden

Game Highlights: Marlies 6 vs. Crunch 5 (SO)