Mitchell Marner: The Good
The birthday boy picked up a nice assist on a slap-pass to teammate Matthew Tkachuk in the second period and then snapped home his 16th goal of the playoffs while on a 4-on-3 power play. On every power play, as a matter of fact, he distributed the puck well from either the half wall or the point, as you might expect from the guy who just won the award for the OHL's most valuable player. He could easily have picked up a few more points (on his first period breakaway, for example, where he put the puck five hole, but it just dribbled wide), and so offensively, Marner really did continue to contribute as he had in the series against Erie.
Defensively, Marner broke up a couple plays with a quick stick, and was able to reverse the flow of play quickly by then moving the puck up quickly to a teammate. He also was a kingpin in the Knights' penalty kill, which was perfect on the night, and he even blocked a couple shots from the point.
Mitchell Marner: The Somewhat Less Good
It would be wrong to be overly critical of Marner's game tonight. He was the game's second star, and deservedly so, but in the interest of balanced reporting, I will offer a couple of thoughts on areas of his game that didn't shine quite as brightly against Niagara as they did against Erie.
Being a lighter player, Marner looked more tentative challenging for pucks against an older, physically stronger Niagara lineup - that is, relative to when he played against Erie. As I've noted in previous posts, Marner's main tools for puck retrieval are a quick stick and his ability to read plays, but that doesn't mean Leafs' fans should disregard the importance of physical strength. Although he's obviously stronger than he was a year ago, Marner still has some muscle-building to do.
The other note I'll make is that Marner played much higher in his defensive zone in this game and was somewhat slower to come back to cover for a defenceman or to provide an option for an outlet pass. Now, perhaps this is due to a coaching adjustment on the part of the Knights - maybe they told him to do this or maybe they didn't want their defenders pinching as much.
Because Marner was unavailable to media after the game, these questions will have to wait until Saturday, when Game 2 is played in London.
J.J. Piccinich: The Good
Piccinich picked up an assist on the Knights' first goal to tie the game by doing some good work on the forecheck and using a quick stick to disrupt an outlet pass from the Ice Dogs' defence. It was perhaps a lucky bounce that the puck bounced right to his linemate Owen MacDonald for the easy one-timer goal, but good forechecking will lead to these kinds of plays, and so credit should be given to Piccinich for that.
In this series and the last, Dale Hunter has increasingly relied on his 3rd line (consisting of Yakimowicz, MacDonald, and Piccinich) as a shutdown unit, and the trio saw a lot of time in the last 5-10 minutes of play of tonight's game. Their strength as a unit so far as been their relentless cycle game that keeps the puck in the offensive end instead of the defensive one. This bodes well for Piccinich's potential as a bottom-six player, though it is, of course, worth noting that even buried on the third line, he was still a point-per-game player this season.
Finally, Piccinich managed to get in a bit of power play time. Not much, mind you, but this is evidence that Hunter still sees offensive potential in the right winger.
Christian Dvorak on the adjustments that he (and Marner's) line have had to make against a more experienced, physical team:
"I think they play a more defensive system ... and they're hard in the D-zone, so we've got to make sure we're working down low and getting pucks to the net, get bodies to the net, and that'll be our recipe for success."
And on if he thinks his line can produce offensively they way they did against Erie:
"I don't know about that. We did pretty good that series, and as the playoffs go on, coverage gets tighter and tighter and there'll be not as much room out there."
J.J. Piccinich: The Somewhat Less Good
It seemed to me that Piccinich's line spent somewhat less time in the offensive zone against Niagara as they did against Erie. While Piccinich as his linemates have thrived this year on strong play along the boards, a stronger, more experienced team cuts into their advantage on that front. Still, Piccinich was perhaps more engaged defensively than I saw against Erie, which suggests that if he's going to spend much time in his zone, he's willing to take hits in order to make defensively safe plays. That's something.
The other caveat - not really a criticism - of Piccinich's night is that his line faced Niagara's second unit for most of the game rather than the first. While against Erie, he and his linemates shut down Dylan Strome, Niagara is a deeper team offensively, and has more firepower and skill to throw back at the Knights, forcing Hunter to change his matchup tactics. Ho-Sang & Co. instead faced Tkachuk, Dvorak, and Marner more often than not.
Owen MacDonald quote about how his (and Piccinich's) line played:
- "We know our job. Our job is to play defence first and keep the puck out of the net."
And on what they're doing successfully in the defensive zone that enables them to get their cycle game going in the offensive zone:
- "Probably position. We have to be on the defensive side of the puck and always get our guy between the net and the us so we have to keep our guys in position and that's probably the biggest factor."