“I thought we played pretty well. We just couldn’t score. The difference [in the third period] was we were probably a little bit more desperate, started putting pucks toward the net, and they started to go in.”

– John Gruden

This performance encapsulated the Toronto Marlies‘ 2023-24 regular season. Despite out-chancing and outplaying the Monsters for large parts of the game, the Marlies‘ inability to capitalize through 40 minutes hurt them. Defensive mistakes allowed Cleveland to build a healthy 3-0 lead, which they clung onto in the final frame. 

First Period

In need of a regulation victory to maintain hopes of a third-place finish, Toronto took the game to Cleveland in the early stages.

Within three minutes, the Marlies generated a 2v1 opportunity. Matthew Barbolini dithered in possession, undecided on whether to shoot or pass, and the chance went to waste.

Toronto should have scored less than two minutes later when a point shot by Robert Mastrosimone produced a rebound on the doorstep for Zach Solow, but the finish wasn’t convincing.

The returning Kieffer Bellows took only eight minutes to make an impact. His excellent stretch pass sent Nick Abruzzese away, but the winger missed the net on the breakaway.

Alex Steeves had a couple of good looks from the right circle, but with no traffic in front, Jet Greaves handled them easily.

Toronto conceded the game’s first goal with five minutes remaining. After losing an offensive-zone draw, Joseph Blandisi (who fell) and Kyle Clifford were caught on the wrong side of the puck. Steeves was also a step behind as Cleveland transitioned with speed, and the winger made the situation worse by stopping to retrieve his stick that he dropped through the neutral zone.

The Monsters took advantage of the 3v2, although Matt Murray might feel he should have done better with Justin Pearson’s shot that beat him low on his blocker side. Murray did make a good double save to prevent Toronto from allowing a second goal 60 seconds later. 

In the final minute, Clifford’s inability to register a shot in alone on Greaves meant Toronto headed into the intermission trailing by one.

Second Period

The middle frame was a frustrating 20 minutes for Toronto. Clifford should have tied the game up inside the opening minute, but yet another Grade-A scoring chance passed him by.

The Marlies continued to carry the play until giving up another terrible goal at the five-minute mark. A series of defensive-zone turnovers resulted in Cleveland owning the offensive zone. A fluky goal went in off the skate of Mattero Pietroniro; the puck looped into the net in an almost slow-motion play.

The game’s first power play somehow didn’t result in a third goal. Murray made his third impressive stop in the span of a few minutes on Stanislav Svozil. While shorthanded, Toronto generated two Grade-A scoring chances. The first fell to Joseph Blandisi in the high slot, but his effort was comfortably gloved. The second was a breakaway for Zach Solow, who got a little too cute as Greaves turned him away.

Cleveland then hoisted themselves into a 3-0 lead with seven minutes to play. Owen Sillinger’s low shot produced a huge rebound off Murray’s pads, and Tyler Angle beat Marshall Rifai to score on the rebound — not particularly great goaltending or defense, and it summed up the difference between the two teams in terms of getting pucks to the net and hunting for second opportunities.

Toronto had opportunities to respond before the second intermission. Blandisi flubbed on another chance from the slot, and the Marlies frittered away their first power play without testing Greaves.

Third Period

A combination of Cleveland crawling into their shell and Toronto throwing caution to the wind almost led to an unlikely Marlies comeback.

After a Monsters turnover up ice stranded four skaters, Logan Shaw led the odd-man rush and outwaited the last Cleveland player back before delivering a cross-seam pass that Kieffer Bellows pounded past Greaves. 

Toronto almost immediately surrendered a goal that would have killed all of their momentum. A giveaway to Luca Del-Bel Belluz allowed him to tee up Trey Fix-Wolanskey, who was robbed by a combination of Mikko Kokkonen and Murray.

High-quality scoring chances were at a premium as Cleveland retreated further into their shell, and Toronto had trouble getting inside the dots. 

When Steeves broke free of the shackles, he teed up Mastrosimone in the heart of the slot. Unfortunately, the rookie’s shot didn’t match the quality of the set-up as Greaves made a comfortable blocker save.

Bellows came close to scoring his second of the game but rang a shot clean off the crossbar as the Marlies power play began to generate some good looks.

With time running out, hope arrived via an unfamiliar source.

After Kokkonen made two excellent defensive plays to deny Cleveland clear scoring opportunities, the defenseman chipped the puck toward Jacob Quillan. As noted in previous recaps, I’ve been impressed by the rookie and felt the points and goals were a matter of time. Quillan quickly sized up the situation as Cleveland attempted to change on the fly, sending a pass down the right boards for Clifford to chase down. Clifford gained possession, immediately sent a fantastic backhand pass into the slot, and Solow thumped a shot into the Monsters’ net.

With 4:22 remaining, there was plenty of time to earn a point at the very least. As they have done countless times this season, Toronto shot themselves in the foot shortly afterward. 42 seconds after making it a one-goal game, the Marlies were caught running around the defensive zone, and despite outnumbering the Monsters, nobody picked up Pearson coming off the bench. His far-side finish on Murray was his third goal of the game.

Murray was pulled from the net for an extra attacker at the restart of play. Some excellent 6v5 play resulted in another glimmer of hope; Steeves belted a shot from the right circle in customary fashion as Toronto drew within one for the second time.

Blandisi had the best chance to tie the game in the final two minutes, but it wasn’t his or Toronto’s day as the Marlies slipped to a seventh straight defeat against Cleveland this season.

Post Game Notes

–  A Marlies regulation loss, coupled with Belleville winning their last game of the season, has set the table. Toronto will finish fifth regardless of their result on Sunday and will now play Belleville in a best-of-three first-round series. The Senators, who finished in fourth place, will hold home-ice advantage.

–  The return of Kieffer Bellows could not have come at a better time. He hardly missed a step and showed exactly what Toronto had been missing at five-on-five. It was a two-point haul (1G/1A) for the winger, who may be rested on Sunday with the playoffs starting on Wednesday.

–  The line of Kyle CliffordJoseph Blandisi Alex Steeves doesn’t work (the lack of chemistry is evident), and I wish John Gruden would stop placing the former in the top six. The adjustment worked late in the game as Clifford created offense lower in the lineup. His bang-and-crash style is perfect alongside the younger, faster players who thrive in the space he creates against lesser competition.

–  I would be tempted to play Matt Murray if he feels up to it in Sunday’s essentially meaningless game. Murray wasn’t given much help at times and could only really be faulted on the third goal. He’s played fine after a long absence. Dennis Hildeby has played a ton this year as a rookie and endured some ups and downs along the way. Personally, I’d rather rest him for the battle ahead and start Murray — or even Luke Cavallin — on Sunday.

–  Although I mentioned Sunday’s game is meaningless as far as the standings are concerned for Toronto, beating Cleveland would be a morale boost for this Marlies team. If Cleveland tops the North Division, they would be Toronto’s next opponent should the Marlies advance past Belleville. Just some food for thought as we approach the final regular-season game.

– Saturday’s lineup vs. Cleveland:

Bellows – Shaw – Abruzzese
Clifford – Blandisi – Steeves
Mastrosimone – Slavin – Solow
Hirvonen – Quillan – Barbolini

Lajoie – Kokkonen
Rifai – Gaunce
Pietroniro – Niemelä


Post-Game Media Availability: Gruden & Kokkonen

Game Highlights: Monsters 4 vs. Marlies 3