HAMILTON, Ont. -- It wasn't the Toronto team that Tim Connolly imagined he'd be playing for when the NHL's lockout ended, but the Maple Leaf veteran made the most of his Marlies debut Saturday.
Connolly scored a highlight-reel goal in his first game since being demoted earlier this week and Matt Frattin scored the shootout winner as the Marlies defeated the Hamilton Bulldogs 3-2 in the American Hockey League.
Connolly said he was relieved to be playing competitive hockey games after the waiting game of the NHL lockout.
"It was good to be back in a game," he said. "It felt good for the first half and then it kind of felt like it was the end of the game for me.
"I've got a ways to go in terms of game conditioning. It's a totally different kind of conditioning."
Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins was complimentary of the new addition to his squad, who he believed demonstrated the hallmark abilities of an NHL-calibre player.
"I thought Tim Connolly was excellent," said Eakins. "I thought that he played a good game. I gave him really good minutes and he responded.
"He was excellent on the bench and you can see what an elite, skilled forward at the NHL level can do with the puck. The things that he do in tight with very little space are really impressive."
Ryan Hamilton also scored in regulation for the Marlies (23-12-3). Mark Owuya stopped 18 shots to get the win.
"I thought that was one of our better road games," said Eakins of the win. "I thought that we controlled the play for most of the game.
"Hamilton did a great job of hanging on and hanging in there. They were hanging around like a bad smell out there. Their goalie played extremely well. But I was impressed with our team that we didn't falter from the game plan. We stayed with it and were able to be rewarded."
Michael Bournival and Joey Tenute replied for the Bulldogs (13-21-5). Cedrick Desjardins made 34 saves in a losing effort.
Frattin's winner came on the Marlies' fourth shot of the shootout after the Bulldogs' Louis Leblanc was stopped by Owuya.
The Bulldogs were poised to get the win in regulation but Hamilton tied the score at 18:10 of the third.
With the Marlies applying desperate pressure in the Bulldogs' zone, Frattin seized the puck to the left of Desjardins and slid a pass across the crease to Hamilton, who managed to squeeze the puck under the goaltender's outstretched pad.
The goal was a last-minute breakthrough against a goaltender that had stymied Toronto throughout the game.
"You keep taking shots and you try to get some traffic," said Connolly. "That's how we eventually got that tying goal.
"It was a puck to the net off pads with guys going to the net. You can't get frustrated, you just keep going at it."
Mike Zigomanis had a clear chance to end the game in the first minute of overtime, but lost control of the puck as he raced in on a breakaway.
Connolly opened the scoring on a superb individual effort at 15:52 of the first period. The veteran NHLer carried the puck through the middle of the ice and deked two Bulldogs defenders before launching a shot past Desjardins from the bottom of the circle.
Hamilton answered back 36 seconds later, when Bournival completed a solo drive of his own. The Bulldogs centre carried the puck over the blue-line and backed off the Marlies' defenders before releasing a shot from the right circle that beat Owuya through the legs.
After the two teams traded chances, the home side finally broke the deadlock at 11:01 of the third, when Tenute put the finishing touch on a three-man rush.
The local product broke into the Toronto zone with linemates Bournival and Dumont, and after Bournival's close-range shot was stopped by Owuya, Tenute responded alertly to the rebound and tapped it past the Marlies goaltender for a 2-1 lead.