It started with a blind pass. As Kasperi Kapanen picked up the puck and cut left-to-right across the crease, he blindly slid the puck off his backhand and back against the grain to Brendan Leipsic at the far post – the one he’d just vacated moments earlier.
He didn’t even celebrate. Everyone else did. But Kapanen, known for his excitable nature and intensity, he of leaps and screams in double OT, didn’t flinch.
This is the new Kasperi Kapanen. The AHL is just his temporary playground. For a brief moment, it looked like he may not have been sent down. But by Wednesday’s morning skate, he was back.
“I didn’t have to prepare too hard,” Kapanen said, plainly, of his return to the team he spent most of the year with.
“It’s easy playing with him. You just have to get open and he usually finds you,” Leipsic said of Kapanen’s ease.
In his return to the Toronto Marlies for Game 3 of their first round matchup against the Albany Devils, Kapanen was effortlessly dominant on the team’s quote-unquote second line with Frederik Gauthier and Leipsic.
On his second shift of the game, curling across the top of the zone this time, Kapanen nearly beat Devils rookie standout Mackenzie Blackwood for a second time.
See, Kapanen finished third on the Marlies in points per game this season -- slightly behind Leipsic and AHL stud Seth Griffith -- but this is now his team.
It’s also, quite likely, his last stint in the AHL. Not only is Kapanen further ahead than his cohorts on a developmental path that leads only to the NHL, he’s also one of just four 20-year-old players on the roster alongside rookies Dmytro Timashov, Andrew Nielsen, and Travis Dermott.
There were moments when he looked fallible – a reach-in tripping penalty midway through the first that led to a Devils game-tying goal and another borderline call midway through the third – but the rest was effortless. Kapanen plays with too much pace and speed for AHL defenders to match. That’s certainly true for the mid-to-late 20s defence iced by Albany, a core that lacks even one legitimate NHL option.
It was almost as if Kapanen sought to get everyone else involved, receiving-and-giving on a late first period 2-on-1 with Gauthier when he had ample opportunity to shoot… and probably score.
In the first period alone, Kapanen registered four of the Marlies’ 11 shots on goal. In the second, a quick wraparound nearly caught Blackwood, all 6-4 of him, off guard.
Late in the second, after streaking wide to receive a Gauthier pass at the offensive blue line, Kapanen found Leipsic streaking to the net for a one-touch goal and his second primary assist of the game.
So when the game headed to overtime, there was an air of inevitability to it all: If the Marlies were going to win, Kapanen was going to be the one to make it happen.
And in his sixth overtime game in two weeks, he did just that. On his first shift of the game’s fourth period, Kapanen used his speed to force the Devils back through the neutral zone before cutting across to set a basketball-type screen for Colin Greening at the blueline. Greening used that space to enter the zone and cleanly beat Blackwood for the winner.
He wasn’t trying to be subtle though.
“I think I could have got a breakaway there but (Justin Holl) told me he trusted (Colin Greening) more and I don’t blame him,” Kapanen said, with a smile. “Overtimes are what we live for as hockey players. It’s the best period, the best time on the ice. Who doesn’t love winning in overtime?”
But his teammates and his coach took note of the nuance — and of the big assists.
“He brings a lot to the table, his speed, he backs the defence off and he makes plays,” Leipsic said. “It was nice to pick up on the chemistry we had before he went up.”
“He looked really, really confident on the ice, as he should be,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Kapanen’s play. “He has shown, even before he went to the Leafs, that he can be a dominant player at this level. It was good to see him play that way, he did a lot of good things for us — even strength, penalty kill, creating two goals for us.”
“The speed he has, the two assists, that’s just the type of player that he is,” Greening echoed.
Moving forward, though, Kapanen can’t be a one-man show.
“Adding the skill and speed of Kapanen, that was a real good line for us,” Keefe said. “That was the one real constant we had. When we put them out, good things happened for us. We had one line going here today and we’re going to have to find more on Friday (for Game 4).”