For the second season in a row, the Toronto Marlies got their regular season off to the perfect start with a pair of wins over the Utica Comets on the weekend.
The victories were earned more through individual talent than the style and structure that Sheldon Keefe expects of his group. It’s hardly surprising that the team lacked cohesiveness, however, as the Maple Leafs left their final reassignments to the last possible moment, leaving little time for the Marlies to practice as a group before opening puck drop.
The rust was especially prevalent on special teams, as the penalty kill endured struggles in allowing three goals against. The power play also toiled, with Toronto unable to gain the offensive zone far too often, albeit while facing a well-drilled Utica penalty kill. That they were able to strike three times with the extra man owed more to the fact they earned 14 man-advantage opportunities, as well as the prowess of Kerby Rychel and Andreas Johnsson in front of goal.
With four valuable points gained on a division rival in Utica, the Marlies sit tied with the Laval Rocket and Rochester Americans, who both won their first two games of the season against Belleville and Syracuse, respectively.
– If there were any fears that Nikita Soshnikov would pout about his reassignment, they were quickly dispelled as the Russian winger was a standout performer over the weekend. He posted a team-high eleven shots, netted the insurance marker Saturday, and made the initial play that set-up the game-winner on Sunday. The goal was the 20th of his AHL career in just 60 games.
– Ben Smith may not be Leafs fans’ favourite player, but he certainly endeared himself to the Marlies faithful back in the AHL with a goal and two primary assists, including a helper on the game-winner on Sunday earned by driving the slot. All of Smith’s points were accrued at even strength. The Marlies’ fourth line with Smith, Rich Clune and Dymtro Timashov showed signs of early chemistry and earned praise from their head coach.
– Kerby Rychel netted eleven power play goals last season and already has a pair this term. Often stationed at the side of the net last year, Rychel instead had his big frame in front screening the goaltender and was extremely effective in that regard.
– Andreas Johnsson is off to a quick start with three points. He knew little about two of the points he registered, including the game winner in game two which deflected in off of his upper body, but he’s consistently in the right place at the right time on the power play and continues to go to the dirty areas. He wasn’t as effective at even strength as the impressive Soshnikov, but with Mueller playing centre between them, that line has potential should the trio really hit their stride together.
– Kasperi Kapanen was almost invisible in game one, most notable for taking a pair of penalties, but was more like his old self during Sunday’s encounter. No points for Kapanen over the weekend, but I sense he isn’t far away from showing us what he’s capable of.
– Garret Sparks picked up a pair of victories after being handed consecutive starts. Better on Saturday than Sunday, Sparks benefitted from a little luck with Utica hitting the iron on a few occasions, but he also pulled out some good saves at crucial moments for the Marlies. The goaltender recorded the 50th and 51st wins of his Marlies career, moving him into third on the all-time franchise list. It’s not inconceivable he could usurp Justin Pogge, who holds the record with 71.
– As is his way, Rich Clune worked his socks off, providing endeavour and a relentless forecheck that Ben Smith and Dymtro Timashov benefited from. Timashov drove a lot of the play on that line, and while he still needs to shoot more, he did fire the puck on six occasions through two games. I’m certain the coaching staff are on his case to become a more selfish player with the goal in his sights.
– Colin Greening, Adam Brooks and Trevor Moore made up the third line. Greening seemed more at ease back at the wing providing veteran mentorship for his younger linemates. Moore appears to have a gained an extra step and was driving with speed to the net at every opportunity. Brooks was solid, especially in the face-off dot, where he appeared to acquit himself well (no statistics are available, unfortunately). He was certainly confident in possession and wasn’t shy about making plays under pressure.
– Miro Aaltonen was handed top line duties and lots of responsibility by Sheldon Keefe in key moments. It was his face-off win that allowed Soshnikov to ice Saturday’s victory, and he was good, if not spectacular, throughout the weekend.
– Timothy Liljegren netted his first AHL goal on Sunday, capping off a fine debut weekend for the rookie. There are so many things to like about his game, but his confidence in possession and skating ability leapt off the page.
– Vincent Loverde and Rinat Valiev had quiet weekends with no glaring errors.
Valiev deferred to Liljegren and held the fort, allowing the rookie to do his thing while providing cover. I expected a little more from Loverde, but he had a better game Sunday than the day before and progress can be expected as he gains familiarity with a new system and teammates.
– Travis Dermott and Justin Holl were both solid in their own end and created offensively with an assist for each. The expectation is that both will take steps forward production-wise this season.
– Andrew Nielsen was again good offensively but was caught out of position in his own zone far too often still. As was the story last year, there is much work for him to do without the puck on his stick.
– Sheldon Keefe kept the same line-up over the weekend which meant Jeremy Bracco, Martin Marincin, Michael Paliotta and Mason Marchment were all healthy scratches.
– Defenseman Alex Gudbranson and forwards Jean Dupuy and Max Novak have been assigned to the Orlando Solar Bears, while Vladimir Bobylev is on his way back to Toronto. Martins Dzierkals currently remains with the Marlies and may get a chance to play this upcoming weekend on the road.
Toronto Marlies Player Stats – October 11
Toronto Marlies Goalie Stats – October 11