To say that the expectation for the Toronto Marlies is a little bit different would be an understatement. Last year's team was young and raw, but really had few stand-out players and a significant lack of supporting depth behind them. It was the mark of a team with a sense of direction, but a lack of available assets. As the season progressed, however, the players grew, the roster was bolstered, and the team defied everybody's beliefs and made the Calder Cup Playoffs. A first round loss, while a little disappointing, was seen as more than good enough.
This year, it's a little different. The team has a blend of the highest-profile young players in the league, and some of the best players of any age. In fact, some guys fit both descriptions, much to the excitement of the Leafs fanbase. While development remains the mission, success is expected as well. With that, the team played their first two games of the season this weekend, and if they're any indication, they should have no problem handling the pressure.
Toronto vs. Manitoba (Friday)
The Marlies opened up their season with a rare weeknight home game, which was probably sensible given the schedules that these guys kept during Leafs training camp and preseason. While Rich Clune was placed on the first line to protect William Nylander and Connor Brown, it was Matt Frattin, of all people, who was first to drop the gloves for the team. Frattin took a check to the head from Julian Melchiori, and when he went to respond, JC Lipon came in to protect the original aggressor. While the Marlies didn't take advantage of the power play that followed, their next attempt went significantly better; William Nylander made a very intelligent play to get himself in front of the net to bang home a pass from Richard Panik to put Toronto on the board.
Brendan Kichton responded for the Moose just a few minutes later to keep the game even after one period, but Toronto took control in the second period. They outshot the Moose 17-9, but more importantly, were the scorers of three of the period's four goals, with Byron Froese, Andre Campbell, and Josh Leivo all picking up tallies.
The Moose made a last minute push, pulling their goalie and getting a goal from former Marlies defenceman Jay Harrison with two minutes to go, but Sam Carrick's empty netter gave Toronto the insurance they needed to win the game.
Toronto vs. Manitoba (Saturday)
Toronto effectively played a game of keepaway in the first period, though Eric Comrie was more than equal to the ridiculous twenty shots taken by the Marlies in the opening twenty. JC Lipon, resident punch thrower in the last game, was actually the one who opened up the scoring, giving Manitoba a 1-0 lead by beating Garret Sparks with one of the Moose's six shots on goal.
History seems to have a way of repeating itself, though, as things began to turn back in the Marlies favour with another early second-period goal by Byron Froese to tie things up. Just like the day before, Andrew Campbell followed up a few minutes later with a shot from distance, which gave the lead to the Marlies for the first time in the afternoon. As if it couldn't get anymore Twilight Zone-y, the Moose pulled their goalie with about two minutes to go and scored a close-quarters goal courtesy of Ryan Olson. This time, though, it was a game-tying tally, leading the two teams to 3-on-3 overtime. While Toronto had their fair share of opportunities, it was five minutes largely spent in the neutral zone, and the game headed to a shootout.
For three consecutive rounds, neither team was able to crack either young goaltender, but in the fourth, Byron Froese managed to squeak one by Comrie to give the Marlies a chance to win. Chase De Leo did his best to beat Sparks, but the 22-year-old stayed perfect in the shootout and sealed the deal on a four-point weekend.
Fancy Stats To Date
While it's still too early to draw any conclusions from concrete numbers, let alone estimated ones, CHL Stats projects the Marlies at a 66.3% Fenwick Close this weekend, the best of any team that played multiple games and third overall. The team took 76 shots and gave up 53, and didn't rely much on "the bounces" to get their way; a 9.33 SH% is pretty pedestrian, and a 0.905 SV% is a little below the norm, if anything.
Player of the Week
I'm going to give this one to Byron Froese, because as much as William Nylander dominated the first game, Froese made an impact in both. Many weren't sure if 24-year-old would keep up his near point per game pace from last year, but with a pair of goals this weekend, he's headed in the right direction. In both cases, the tallies instigated pushes from the team when they needed them most, and his shootout winner obviously speaks for itself. He might just be the best second line centre in this league.
Who's Hot, Who's Not?
Wiliam Nylander is hot. Not because he looks like he could fit into a boy band, but more because he picked up a pair of points and took twelve shots this weekend, including a ridiculous nine in the season opener. His confidence with the puck and the nonchalant-ness of the plays he makes make it obvious that he's playing in a tier below his true level. With that said, being down here will give him more minutes to experiment, not to mention grow the weaker points of his game.
Andrew Campbell is hot. The new captain already has two goals on the season, putting him one behind his pro career high of three. I don't think he continues to shoot at 66% moving forward, but its a heck of a start. He's currently playing with Rinat Valiev, who I assume will evolve to take the offensive role of the pair if they're together in the long run.
Nikita Soshnikov is not. I'm not overly concerned just yet since he's getting himself adjusted to the first step-driven North American play style, but he seemed to be a little bit passive in the two games. He did pick up four shots, though, so the opportunities are coming to him.
Justin Holl is not, picking up no points and a -1 rating. I'm not entirely sure that he'll see significant ice time once the Leafs decide what they're going to do with Scott Harrington and/or Frank Corrado.
Kasperi Kapanen is sick. I know that's not an option here, but people have been asking why he didn't play, and that's your answer. He should be in the lineup this upcoming weekend.
The Marlies now have a week off, returning to the ice on Saturday and Sunday for a pair of games against the Albany Devils. The New Jersey affiliate hasn't looked much better than their big club is expected to be thsi year, dropping their season opener 4-1 on Saturday against Binghamton.